Super Rugby AU kick-off is just four days away. As always, we’ll be running our eyes over each Australian side’s chances, starting today with the Waratahs.
If you thought the Tahs ran out an inexperienced side in the second half of 2020 (and they did), you ain’t seen nothing yet. With a youth-laden squad named for 2021, development is very much the order of the day.
For the second year in a row, the Waratahs have been hit hardest by off-season player movement. Michael Hooper is with Toyota Verblitz for a six-month sabbatical, Ned Hanigan has inked a year-long deal to play in the Japanese Top League, and Rob Simmons is on London Irish’s books now.
With Karmichael Hunt not re-signed and Tom Robertson moving to the Force, there’s a dearth of veteran heads in sky blue this season.
There’s been little in the way of high-profile replacements. The lifeline handed to talented back Izaia Perese is the most notable signing the Tahs have made, while Jack Whetton, Sam Caird and Sam Wykes have been brought in to cover the departures at lock.
Scrumhalf Jake Gordon has taken over as captain and he, along with Jack Dempsey, will have to provide most of the on-field leadership for a young team.
ForwardsRobbie Abel, Angus Bell, Cam Caird, Joe Cotton, Jack Dempsey, Max Douglas, Tetera Faulkner, Charlie Gamble, Will Harris, Tom Horton, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Dave Porecki, Hugh Sinclair, Lachie Swinton, Chris Talakai, Alefosio Tatola, Tiaan Tauakipulu, Carlo Tizzano, Jack Whetton, Jeremy Williams, Sam Wykes
BacksBen Donaldson, Tane Edmed, Lalakai Foketi, Jake Gordon, Jack Grant, Will Harrison, Jack Maddocks, Tepai Moeroa, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Alex Newsome, Izaia Perese, James Ramm, Tristan Reilly, Henry Robertson, Joey Walton
Captain: Jake GordonCoach: Rob Penney
Rob Penney. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
They might be light on experience, but the flipside of that coin is the Tahs have some extremely promising youngsters on their roster.
In Angus Bell, Will Harrison and Joey Walton they have a trio of Junior Wallabies who were excellent in their first seasons of professional rugby, while under 20s teammates Mark Nawaqanitawase and Will Harris also showed promise, and Lachie Swinton joined Bell in making his Test debut last year.
Bell’s athleticism around the ground for a front-rower was particularly impressive – and translated well to the international arena – and his scrum work is improving.
Walton looks to have all the makings of a top-class outside centre: a good reader of the play in defence and dangerous with ball in hand, he will only benefit from a full season with the 13 on his back.
Harrison had the best season of the three last year. Thrust in at flyhalf following Bernard Foley’s departure at the end of 2019, the 21-year-old orchestrated the Waratahs’ attack quite capably, even when playing behind a beaten pack.
He also established himself as the best place-kicker in Australia following the competition restart, missing just three of his 40 attempts from the tee in Super Rugby AU.
It was due in no small part to Harrison that the Waratahs developed into one of the better attacking sides last year, finishing second in the competition for points scored. And with the likes of Jack Maddocks, James Ramm and Perese joining Harrison and Walton in the backline, there’s ample attacking talent out wide.
The way they scored those points, though, made them something of an outlier, with Rob Penney’s charges more than happy to take the three points from Harrison’s boot whenever they were on offer.
Only the Reds produced a higher regular-season tally during the regular season than the Tahs, yet they were far from being the most prolific try-scorers.
A team that struggles to find the tryline? Perhaps, but a better way to look at it would be a side who both convert their fives into sevens and are entirely comfortable keeping the scoreboard ticking over in threes – a sensible way to play that Wallabies fans were bemoaning the lack of last year.
While pre-season talk of up-tempo, free-flowing attacking play may see the Tahs cross the chalk more frequently this year, having a trusty point-scoring avenue in Harrison’s boot is valuable, and moreso now given that Rob Simmons and Ned Hanigan’s departures will make kicking for touch less reliable.
(Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
It follows that a team full of young talent is going to lack experience. The Waratahs will excite this year, and will only progress further in the following seasons, but the absence of savvy veterans will likely cost them, particularly in close games.
Similarly, if a team had a good attack yet missed out on the finals, it’s only natural that their defence is cause for concern. The Tahs conceded more points than any team in Super Rugby AU aside from the Force, leaking a worrisome 24 per game. That isn’t in the recipe book for a successful season, and Michael Hooper’s departure will make improving on that side of the ball only more difficult.
The lineout is also an area of concern, again partly due to squad changes. A real strength of the Waratahs’ last year, they’ll have to find a way for it to function without 2020’s first-choice lock pairing of Simmons and Hanigan.
That duo were excellent in both controlling ball from the set-piece and disrupting opposition throws, to the point their efforts almost helped NSW to a shock win over the Brumbies in Round 3.
New signing Jack Whetton will bring with him some physicality, and fellow Kiwi import Sam Caird will add height to the lineout.
The latter, however, has never played a Super Rugby game despite spending three years with the Chiefs and Blues, and while Whetton is more experienced, a new-look second row is going to bring with it growing pains and is ultimately going to be a downgrade on the pair of Wallabies.
Jack Dempsey. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Key player: Jake Gordon
With former skippers Hooper and Simmons gone, Jake Gordon was the obvious choice to take over as New South Wales captain for 2021.
After missing a good chunk of last season through injury, the Tahs’ attack looked significantly more dangerous with their first-choice halfback on the field, and he was the main driving force behind their incredible 45-12 win over the Reds in Round 6 with his first-half hat-trick.
In fact, the difference between NSW with Gordon wearing the number nine and without him was marked: one win from four without him in the starting XV, and three from four with him in there.
Even in their lone trial against the Reds this year, Rob Penney’s charges were sharper once their captain was brought on, and he further emphasised his try-scoring threat with a double.
Gordon’s running game has always been strong and his kicking game was what won him four Wallabies caps last year, but it’s two other areas of his game which will be central to the Waratahs’ success this year: passing and leadership.
The 27-year-old is still prone to the odd sloppy pass, a hindrance that his side could well do without in a year when they need everything to go right.
As for leadership, Gordon captained a grand total of one professional rugby match before the trial against the Reds, making him an unknown quantity as a skipper. He looks to have what it takes – he’s spoken well and with confidence in the lead-up to the season – but we won’t know for sure until the competition is well underway.
If he proves adept at leading this young team, it’ll go some way to pushing the Waratahs beyond their pre-season expectations.
Jake Gordon. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
If last season was a development year for the Waratahs, 2021 will be even more so. There’s talent aplenty in this playing group, and it won’t be too long before they find themselves at the right end of the standings, but at the moment they lack the experience and know-how to win consistently. Without much depth, an injury to a key player would be catastrophic.
They have the potential to jump up the standings and make a push for the finals, but defensive frailties and the departure of key players – plus the heavy recruitment we’ve seen out west – means a last-placed finish looks most likely.