Can the Waratahs Deliver on Past Broken Promises?
They have been the most frustrating team in Australia. It seemed that every year was their year but they never seemed to deliver. One would suspect that a team with the largest metropolitan city as its base would produce a champion.
It hasn’t been the case since the Waratahs joined the Super Rugby series way back in 1996. The closest that the Waratahs got to winning the cup was in two losing finals, both to the Crusaders in 2005 and 2008.
The Waratahs have boasted legendary names such as Phil Waugh, David Campese, Wendall Sailor, Lote Tuqiri, Matt Burke, Nick Farr-Jones and Rocky Elsom. Their tradition stretches back to 1874 with the formation of NSWRU. They toured and played in many matches, even winning a fair amount, but with the introduction of the professional age, they haven’t won a cup worth significant international value.
This year has been something different though. They haven’t really put themselves on a pedestal and have had their heads down and been getting on with the job of playing rugby. Coach Cheika has been in charge of the team since 2012 and has been building his style within the team since then. He has the talent at his disposal these days and is utilising it to the benefit of the team. Any coach would salivate at the team sheet that Cheika has this year and at last, the Waratahs are delivering on past broken promises.
The tight-five can read as a Wallaby team with strong, big men in Kepu, Robinson and Ryan propping up the scrum. Robinson has had experience at the Wallaby level but was left out of the recent camp and Ryan is on the cusp of getting a call-up. Kepu got the call from McKenzie which is reward for his work on the field. Jersey number 2 is occupied by a Wallaby in Polota-Nau and he too is in form to get another call for Wallaby duty.
The locking pair boast a huge player in the form of Skelton. The massive man has made some impressive line breaks and is able to get over the advantage line. He normally draws in three defenders and continues his leg drive to gain precious metres in tight games allowing his teammates to get in support. For his massive presence on the field, McKenzie has given him the nod. The man next to him is Douglas, a former Wallaby that will later ply his trade in Europe. He is still a formidable player nonetheless.
The loose trio is packed with experience and some of the best in the world. The Waratahs imported a big name at the beginning of the season in Jacques Potgieter, or ‘JacPot’ as he is being called these days. It’s no coincidence that the gamble has paid off as this guy has worn the Springbok jersey and only knows one way to play rugby – hard. Besides the big South African, one of the best flankers in the world packs down. Hooper has been nominated by the press to lead Australia and not many people disagree. He is one of the best on the ground and forces turnovers almost at will. Dave Dennis leads the men in blue and the depth in the loose is bountiful.
The back line is also packed with top-flight players from McKibben and Phipps in the 9 jersey, with Phipps called into the Wallabies and McKibben on the cusp, to the young and in-form Foley. This half combination has been responsible for some great phases in the Waratahs’ games and has led to some great tries. The centres can almost be the Wallaby combination with Ashley-Cooper filling in at 13 or he can be placed on the wing. He is a tough tackler and difficult to beat on defence. Rob Horne has pace to burn and is capable of beating defenders in open play allowing gaps to open and forcing players through. I guess that the only positions that lack the star-stubbed prestige as the rest of the team would be the wingers. Not to take anything away from these guys, but the whole team has been on McKenzie’s radar.
Even though Beale is a utility back, he is listed as the full back in the team. He can play almost anywhere in the back line and has a kicking boot to add to his arsenal. He has had his troubles and may find it difficult to get along with some players but to get a call-up from Link means that his hard work has been noticed and he continues to impress.
The jewel in the crown for the Waratahs is Israel Folau. He is currently the top try scorer in 2014 overall and is deadly in open space as well as in close quarters. He is a strong runner and no team would dare to challenge him in the air. He has impressed more than just the Wallabies with his skills and continues to grow every season.
With this type of team, you would expect them to make the finals at least. As of round 15, they lie second on the overall table and lead the Australia Conference from the Force by 3 points. They have a tough match in round 16, taking on the Chiefs before the Super Rugby takes a break for the June Internationals. After they return, the ‘Tahs take the Brumbies, Highlanders and Reds. Even though the Waratahs have scored winning bonus points in the last three games they haven’t won in New Zealand since 2010. The Chiefs will be hurting from their worst defeat in recent history and would want to make a statement to regain their right to play in the finals. With history and the fact that the Chiefs want to get things right, I doubt that the Waratahs will win this one, but may come within 7 to gain a losing bonus point.
Once the hiatus is over, they have two home games and one away which they can all win, if things go according to plan. They play against the Brumbies, which should be a titanic battle but I think that the home-ground advantage will tip the Waratahs to victory. They then host the Highlanders which again would be an arm wrestle of a match, but the home grounds would work in their favour. They travel to Queensland to take on the underperforming Reds which is a winnable match. The Reds have lost their way in the past month and are falling off the tracks. They have nothing more to play for other than pride. This could be dangerous as they would throw caution to the wind and could upset the apple cart, but the Waratahs should be able to absorb whatever is thrown at them.
Best-case scenario is that the Waratahs could pick up 13 points with maybe a bonus point thrown on top. Even if the Force collect the full complement of 20 points, which is doubtful, the Waratahs still have a chance with a wildcard playoff. The Force will have to beat the Crusaders, Blues, Rebels and Brumbies, all with bonus point victories, to leapfrog the Waratahs by the end of the season. Unless something catastrophic happens to the Waratahs, I don’t see them relinquishing the Australian Conference lead too easily.
Considering that eleven members of the Waratahs team have been invited to the Wallabies’ camp, they should produce game-winning results and claim the Australian Conference. The next best thing is to remain second on the overall table to gain home advantage in the finals and a week off to allow the wild card teams to decide who goes forward. This is a tougher ask than winning the conference. At the op sit the Sharks who can beat teams with 14 men and who have been at the top since week one. In reality, the Waratahs should aim to keep second place but they’ll be challenged by one of four New Zealand teams. The Crusaders are at the top at the moment but it could change within a weekend. Two points separate the top four teams in New Zealand, so your guess is as good as mine who would win the conference at the end of the year. It may come down to a disallowed try, a la Highlanders versus Crusaders.
In the end, the Waratahs have created one of the best chances that they have had in a long time to make the finals and could go all the way, if the chips fall right. They have the talent in the team but now need the silverware to match.
Follow Commentary Box Sports on Social Media!