It’s been a swift decline for the Waratahs since surging to a maiden Super Rugby title in 2014.
The defending champs finished the regular season in second in 2015 before being bounced out in a home semi by the Highlanders, while last year they won just over half of their games to finish out of finals reckoning in 10th.
Their 2016 efforts were a microcosm of the dreadful collective performance of Australian teams – but given the class and experience at their disposal, the Waratahs’ failure was hardest of all to fathom. Losses in the last two rounds to the Hurricanes at home and the out-of-contention Blues away cost the Sydney-based outfit top spot in the Australian Conference, with the Brumbies limping into the playoffs instead.
It was a tough initiation for new coach Daryl Gibson, the former All Black who took over after three seasons as Michael Chieka’s assistant, and it won’t get much easier with several key men departing and little to get excited about in the arrivals column.
Dave Dennis, Wycliff Palu, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson and Kurtley Beale, who missed most of 2016 with injury, are the big names to leave, with Wallabies prop Sekope Kepu the only player who could be considered a blue-chip recruit.
The bones of a title-contending team are still there – Bernard Foley, Israel Folau, Nick Phipps, Michael Hooper, Will Skelton, Dean Mumm, Rob Horne and Tolu Latu – but the ’Tahs need some second-tier players to step up another level in 2017.
BEST RECRUIT: The return of 31-year-old prop Sekope Kepu is a rare coup in the player transfer stakes for the Waratahs ahead of the coming season. Kepu played 97 games for the franchise before joining French outfit Bordeaux in 2015, and he brings the experience of 76 Tests for the Wallabies back to Sydney. The Waratahs’ scrum should be much more formidable for his presence.
— EatSleepRugby (@eatsleeprugby) December 5, 2016
STRENGTH: World-class players in key roles. Flanker Michael Hooper, fullback Israel Folau and flyhalf Bernard Foley all rate among the top two or three on the planet in their respective positions. They’re big-game performers and ultra-consistent, setting the example for the Waratahs’ less experienced campaigners.
WEAKNESS: Besides looking relatively weak in the midfield or at fullback – depending on where Israel Folau plays – and question marks over who will fill the gaps in the loose forwards, the Waratahs have a disturbing lack of depth. Injuries hit them hard last year, and if they’re similarly unlucky in 2017, it’s difficult to see the former heavyweights coping.
KEY MAN: The Waratahs’ fortunes largely hinge on the form and influence of Bernard Foley. A late starter in 2016 due to injury, the No.10 never came close to replicating his championship-winning touch of 2014 or his brilliant World Cup efforts, but we saw glimpses of it during the Wallabies’ better showings in a tough year. Foley needs a better platform to work off than he got last season, but if he receives the necessary support, nobody needs reminding of what he’s capable of.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Israel Folau is the Waratahs’ chief strike weapon, and there is speculation still over whether he’ll slot in at fullback or centre. The old adage of not weakening one position to strengthen another should apply, with Folau surely of more value in the No.15 jumper, but coach Daryl Gibson is making noises about putting him in the midfield in attack and defence. Wherever Folau plays, though, he has a knack of staying highly-involved and busting games open.
— Rugby Heaven (@rugbyheaven) February 13, 2017
YOUNG GUN: An Australian Schoolboys and Under-20s rep, loose forward Jack Dempsey has played 13 Super Rugby games since debuting in 2015. With Dave Dennis and Wycliff Palu moving on, it’s time for the dynamic 22-year-old to put his stamp on a starting role in the ’Tahs’ pack.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: It was a mixed 2016 for halfback Nick Phipps to say the least, enduring more lows than highs at Super Rugby and Test level. The 51-Test veteran is a true competitor, however, and he’ll be out to prove a point this season – and the Waratahs desperately need him to.
— NSW Waratahs (@NSWWaratahs) January 24, 2017
THE COACH: Daryl Gibson probably deserves the benefit of the doubt after his first season as a head coach, but the 19-Test All Black won’t be afforded much more time if the Waratahs repeat their disappointing 8-7 win-loss ratio. With a weakened squad and the Folau positional gamble to grapple with, Gibson has his work cut out in 2017.
THE DRAW: The Waratahs kick off with a home assignment against the Force on Saturday, February 25, before heading to South Africa to take on the Lions and Sharks. They return for a tough four-week stretch that sees them play the Brumbies and Crusaders at home, and the Rebels and Hurricanes away. It gets easier thereafter (though playing all five NZ teams isn’t ideal) but it’s an incredibly difficult opening two months that will probably tell us all we need to know about whether the Waratahs are capable of returning to the finals.
POSSIBLE 2017 LINEUP:
1 Sekope Kepu
2 Tolu Latu
3 Paddy Ryan
4 Will Skelton
5 Dean Mumm
6 Jack Dempsey
7 Michael Hooper
8 Jed Holloway
9 Nick Phipps
10 Bernard Foley
11 Taqele Naiyaravoro
12 Rob Horne
13 Israel Folau
14 Reece Robinson
15 Andrew Kellaway
Reserves: Angus Ta’avao, Tom Robertson, Hugh Roach, David McDuling, Michael Wells, Matt Lucas, David Horwitz, Cameron Clark.