NSW Waratahs Season Preview 2012

INS: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Rocky Elsom, Jono Jenkins, Tevita Metuisela, Sarel Pretorius, Dan Vickerman

OUTS: Sosene Anesi, Al Baxter (retired), Kurtley Beale, Luke Burgess, Ryan Cross. Josh Holmes, Cam Jowitt, Locky McCaffrey, Ben Mowen, Pat O’Connor, Phil Waugh (retired)

2011 was a mixed bag of a year for the NSW Waratahs. They scored more tries than any other side in the competition, had the meanest defence and made the finals series for the fifth time in the last seven years – all with a crippling injury toll that seemingly grew with every game. However, they relinquished their status as Australian rugby’s top dog to Queensland – losing the Templeton Cup for the first time since 2005 in the process – were booed off their own ground after losing to the Cheetahs and severely tested the faith of many ardent supporters in the process. Al Baxter – recently retired from the game but a Waratah through and through – Sekope Kepu and Tom Carter preview the season ahead and give their thoughts as to how the team can try to break that elusive Super Rugby title drought over the next five and half months.

RuggaMatrix: What’s the feeling going into the season now after the pre-season trials?

Al Baxter: “You can’t read much from those games, they were under strength international sides [Samoa and Tonga] who were both missing most of their stars but a lot of what trials are about is actually your own performance, getting your combinations right and getting some match fitness. You want a decent hit-out in terms of length of time and the opposition to be of a decent enough quality to give you some contests in certain areas and I think they would have got that – certainly in the second trial more than the first. A lot of it is just about slotting guys in like Adam Ashley-Cooper and Sarel Pretorius, that haven’t been there before.”

Sekope Kepu: “The guys are feeling pretty good. As we all do, you get over the training after ten weeks of pre-season and just want to play so we’re all itching to get out there. Obviously, we really feel for guys like Lachie Turner [out for the season] and others but we’ve worked on building our depth and are confident that the guys stepping into those positions will do just as well.”

Tom Carter: “The results have been really pleasing and the new additions to the squad, like Sarel Pretorius and Adam Ashley-Cooper, have been outstanding in how they have played and fitted in. We are really confident with the group we have that if we stay focused on ourselves and what we can control, we can improve from last year and play a more skilled and consistent brand of football week in, week out. If we are able to do that then we believe we will be in a really good position come July-August.”

RM: What are the key improvements the Waratahs need to make to have a more successful season than last year?

Al Baxter: “Well, perception is a massive thing. We made the semis last year and were the highest try scoring team but people perceived that it was a boring and unsuccessful season. That’s one of the factors and I’m not sure how you change perception but maybe getting a couple of good wins early and hoping that the opposition is up for an entertaining game as much as you are would help. Hopefully, injuries are managed better and the consistency improves. Last season, we had a couple of wonderful games early on and then had a dreadful loss to the Cheetahs and were fighting back from then on. If you can’t control perception and injuries, it’s probably consistency that needs to improve.”

Sekope Kepu: “I think it’s more about focusing on what we do well and to keep doing it while working on our weaknesses at the same time, rather than stop doing what we’re good at while we work on our weaknesses, which I believe is something we’ve done in the past. We need to recognise what we have and utilise that to the fullest.”

Tom Carter: “The coaching staff have done a tremendous job at pushing us to achieve improvements in both physical and skill attributes over the pre season. As well as that, we have worked tirelessly on achieving the required mentality and understanding needed to win the title and to play a brand of football that engages with our stakeholders. We understand we have a sense of responsibility to perform and improve upon last year, it’s now a matter of getting out on the field and doing it.

“The focus for the team is consistency and on sharpening our mentality towards playing games week in and week out during the competition. Irrespective of what is happening on the scoreboard or peripherally, we need to have focus and clarity in playing to our strengths and to believe in our strategy and game plan. If we can master that consistently, then we will be able to challenge the Reds and other top teams in the competition. We possess all the skills and players required to win the title, it’s a matter of getting the belief from within to do it when it matters most.”

RM: The Tahs are historically fast starters in the competition but aren’t always firing on all cylinders come the business end of the season. Is that something they could possibly manage better – peaking at the right time?

Al Baxter: “Definitely. People like the Crusaders do it very well, they often have slow starts and really build into the back end of the season but with the sporting market that the Waratahs are competing in here in Sydney, it’s a little more difficult than that. If you have a slow start to the season, you do cop it and I guess it was the strategy of previous coaches to say ‘let’s go out at a sprint and see how long we can hold it’. It takes a fair bit of strength from the coach to go into the first couple of games under-prepared – not in terms of technique, strategy and tactics – but in terms of where guys are at physically. I think Michael Foley has the strength of character to do that and I think it’s what needs to be done with it being such a long season.”

RM: How do you rate your rivals in the Australian conference – will the Reds be the team to beat again?

Al Baxter: “The Reds will be the same. They’re the reigning champions, they’ve got the same players, the same coach – they’re definitely favourites. The Waratahs have a very strong squad with many of the same coaches and many of the same players and having been a finalist last year, must be up there. I think the Force may struggle this year having lost Ripia and O’Connor. They still have a very good forward pack but they have a backline without any real leaders and that could let them down.

“The Brumbies could be the surprise packet. After hearing a bit of what Jake White’s doing down there and the cohesion that the team has – which is something I haven’t heard from Canberra for a long time – the fact that they have their backs to the wall after last season could actually be a good thing for them so I suspect they’ll do far better this year. If the Rebels can keep their young side focused – certainly some of their backs focused – then I think they can do quite well. My feeling with them is that there will be still be rocks and diamonds – some amazing games where they do some amazing stuff and then they won’t be so good in other weeks.”

Sekope Kepu: “I think the Rebels will be a threat. They’ve made two big signings in Beale and O’Connor and that’s added a massive x-factor to their backline. Also, it’s their second year as a playing group, so they would be a lot more familiar with each others games.”

Tom Carter: “All Australian derbies are fiercely contested and it’s such a tough conference. There are no easy games.”

RM: What about the main threats from New Zealand and South Africa – the usual suspects or could we see a couple of bolters this year?

Al Baxter: “I think the Bulls will drop out of the list of favourites simply because they’ve lost so many experienced players, so many internationals, that they’ll be a different side this year. They’ve still got a very good coaching structure and a very good system in place so they’ll go well but I don’t think they’ll be the side they were last year. In terms of the usual suspects, I think it will be interesting to see how the Crusaders go early on without their two superstars in McCaw and Carter. Once again, they’ve got amazing systems and extraordinary depth so I can see them having their usual slow start before coming home with a wet sail.

“I’m picking the Chiefs as the next strongest, they’ve certainly recruited very well and I think they could be right up there. What has let them down in previous years has been their consistency, they’ve always had extraordinary talent – much like the Blues –  but they’ve always been a bit up and down. Wayne Smith will obviously bring in a lot of systems that made the All Blacks so successful and that will make a difference. In South Africa you’re probably looking at the Stormers, they’ve been building quite well over the last couple of years and they seem to have a strong squad again and look to be the side to beat over there. They’ve really built an excellent team around their defence and not through just making tackles but through making strong, aggressive tackles where they turnover ball and put the opposition under pressure. Their defence is a form of attack.”

Sekope Kepu: “The Crusaders are always a very competitive side, they have great depth with many good young guys coming through. I think the Stormers will again be the big threat from South Africa, they still have their key group of players which is going to play a big part.”

Tom Carter: “I think the New Zealand conference looks unbelievably tough. The Crusaders are always so strong and the Blues and the Chiefs have recruited tremendously well and look really good. Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu and Rudi Wulf for the Blues is a scary proposition when added to Isaia Toeava, Alby Mathewson, Rene Ranger and Sherwin Stowers. I think the Sharks and Lions will challenge the Bulls and Stormers to be South Africa’s premier teams.”

RM: How do you think the break for the June internationals will affect the season if at all – are there positives and negatives?

Al Baxter: “I think it will be very difficult for the Wallaby players. You’ve been battling against these guys all season, then you try to come together as a team and then you break up again and go back to facing each other in Super Rugby. What is to the Waratahs advantage this year is that they get an extra week for the bye after those internationals so they’ll get a week to settle things back down again.

“Hopefully, the Super Rugby provinces and the national teams have a fair bit of open communication so that they can look after guys with injuries and manage them sensibly. If they do that, then I think it will be great for spectators as well.”

Sekope Kepu: “I think it’ll be a good break for the non-international Super Rugby players. It’ll give guys time to freshen up from niggling injuries and just from rugby in general but in saying that, the toll that it will take on the Wallaby players will be massive – both mentally and physically. It’ll be interesting to see how it all unfolds.”

Tom Carter: “I think that it’s a great opportunity to rejuvenate physically and mentally. Some may argue that the break may stop momentum for some teams but I think that it will raise the intensity of the last rounds of the competition and the finals series and teams will be able to prepare for those games with a greater focus.”

The Breakdown

1. Injury Time:
Given the physical nature of the sport, every rugby team suffers at the hands of the injury gods at one time or another but some do seem to have offended those on high more than others and the Waratahs have definitely fallen into that category over the last couple of years. Significant injuries to key players quite literally crippled their title chances last season and their list of walking wounded was so long come finals time, that they fielded what amounted to over half a reserve side for the semi-final clash with the Blues, the end result far from unexpected.

The twelve strong Wallaby contingent (a part of any Robbie Deans squad over the previous 12 months) racked up only 70% of appearances between them with Berrick Barnes, Rob Horne and Wycliff Palu alone managing only 16 appearances in the Cambridge Blue combined. Add to that the horrific season ending ankle injury sustained by Drew Mitchell in Round Nine and the season long issues, which severely hampered the performances of Tatafu Polota-Nau and Phil Waugh (the skipper played from Round Three onwards with practically one bicep), and ending the year as Super Rugby champions was always going to be a tall order. Whether it takes a re-evaluation of the current training regime, a smarter approach to player management across the season (if they’re not at almost 100%, don’t risk them) or coach Michael Foley performing a hex-exorcising sacrificial ceremony in one corner of the SFS, a repeat dose of the same misfortune is definitely not what the doctor ordered.

2. Rallying the Masses (aka hold onto the ball):
It’s not the amount of times the ball is kicked in a match – the Queensland Reds actually kicked more than anybody in the 2011 competition, yet were labelled the entertainers, had an average home crowd of over 30,000 and lifted the trophy – but when and where it is kicked that caused such ire to the Waratahs faithful last season. The inept display in the Round 4 home loss to the Cheetahs brought with it both a chorus of boos on the night and a public inquest in the aftermath that reached it’s zenith at the infamous Fan Forum, where members, supporters and even ex-players joined together to criticise the style of play seen at the SFS in recent seasons. With their own average home gate having dropped to just over 20,000 last year, the emphasis on the Tahs to play with vim and vigour and no little abandon in 2012 is driven not only by the baying fans but by the number crunchers at New South Wales Rugby Union. They must address this perceived weakness accordingly or face the increased defection and apathy of an already disgruntled fanbase.

3. It’ll Beale Alright:
Often last season, the lone spark of unpredictability, the one player that consistently got Tahs fans out of their seats in anticipation, was Kurtley Beale. Given the concerns raised in the previous paragraph then, Beale’s defection to Melbourne provides an even bigger slap to the face for a franchise that the public thinks is in need of an image overhaul. They’ve lost their most marketable commodity and they need to replace him quickly. The introduction of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Sarel Pretorius may go someway towards addressing the lost x-factor – especially if the fleet-footed Pretorius can ignite his more than capable backline and match last season’s try scoring exploits for the Cheetahs – but it would still seem that another caped crusader is required to step into the vacant position of ‘entertainer’.

Of the young bloods coming through, Tom Kingston looks set for a stellar career if he can maintain his upward curve. Still only 19, the blonde speedster may well earn cult status over the next few years if his dancing feet can take him across the white line with enough regularity but in terms of an out and out playmaker, the smart money would have to be on Bernard Foley stepping up to the plate. Adept at both10 or 15, the former Aussie Sevens rep has all the makings of a crowd pleaser. Pace, a decent step, a deceptive change of gears, an adept (and proactive) kicking game and the kind of youthful exuberance that promotes the chancing of one’s arm whenever possible. He may just prove to be the breath of fresh air that sets the tone for others to follow and gives the Waratahs faithful the excitement machine they so desire.