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The unanswered questions that will cost the Waratahs dearly in 2020

By Nick Turnbull
Experienced Waratahs' players Michael Hooper and Kurtley Beale. (Photos/Gettys Images)

There are several questions to be answered by the New South Wales Waratahs of 2020.


What change will new head coach Rob Penney effect upon the squad? Who will play fly half? And where will the points come from? Make no doubt about it 2020 will be an exceptionally challenging, transitional year for the New South Welshman and their supporters.

Taking over from his fellow Cantabrian Daryl Gibson, Penney has accepted arguably the toughest coaching role in Australian provincial rugby.

He has the unenviable task of implementing his playing style and regime in a decidedly politicised organisation, operating in an exceedingly competitive professional sports market that subsequently demands success yesterday.

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Penney, and his fellow coaches in former Wallabies Matt Cockbain, Mark Bell and Chris Whittaker, find themselves is in a transitional period for Waratahs rugby, and the transition is not a word immediately synonymous with instant success.


Penney must learn to play the politics while also balancing the head coaching role if he is to see out his three-year contract as he has no history or power base to draw support from if the Waratahs falter early in his tenure.

The pressure is on from day one.

That being said, Penney is a well-credentialled coach, achieving stunning success with Canterbury in the ITM Cup, winning the title four times in a row between 2008 and 2011.

Although not as successful during his two-year stint at Irish province Munster, he received the PRO12 coach of the season award in 2014 for his efforts. Evidently, Penney knows his way around professional rugby, but what will we see from him in 2020?


He will, at the very least in year one, have the Waratahs fit and have a forward pack that can secure set piece as that is where the strength in his squad is found.

Despite the loss of experienced Wallabies such as Sekope Kepu and Tolu Latu, Penney can build a platform off the likes of Wallabies Harry Johnson-Homes, Tom Robertson, Tetera Faulkner, Rob Simmons, Jack Dempsey and Michael Hooper.

Coupled with emerging names like Carlo Tizzano, who is an exciting openside talent out of Western Australia, and powerhouse blindside flanker Lachlan Swinton, who could tour the northern hemisphere with the Wallabies this year, the Waratahs look to have the makings of a very decent forward pack in 2020.

That being said, what about the backs who should enjoy the benefit of the possession provided by these forwards?

That is where Penney has his work cut out.

While Jake Gordon should be the pick of the halfbacks, the key issue for the Waratahs is who will fill the vacancy in the fly-half role left by veteran Bernard Foley?

The two main contenders appear to be Mack Mason and Will Harrison. The youthful Harrison has promise but is suspect on defence and is simply too young to be thrown into the rigours of starting fly-half for the Waratahs at this time.

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(6/13) The best test sides of the 2010's – 2015 Wallabies. This was a great Australian side stacked with legends such as Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Adam Ashley-Cooper as well as guys at their peak in David Pocock, Will Genia and Kurtley Beale. They won the shortened Rugby Championship but failed to win back the Bledisloe in two matches shared 1-1. In the pool of death at the World Cup they beat England and Wales, making a run to the final only to be beaten again by the all-time great All Blacks side. Still went 10-2 and the only losses came against New Zealand. One of the best test sides of the decade, and surely best Australian one of the 2010's. #wallabies #aussierugby #australiarugby #rugbyaustralia #worldrugby #rwc #rugby #rugbygram

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Although Mason has been the longer-serving Waratah and already has some Super Rugby experience, he is yet to establish himself as a player who can perform consistently at this level, let alone steer around a team to win the Australian conference.

The lack of a proficient fly-half will cause New South Wales issues in 2020.

Some may consider veteran Kurtley Beale an option to fulfil the role, but that would be a selection void of vision and potentially fatal to Penney’s tenure as he must develop talent.

It is currently being reported that the Waratahs and Melbourne Rebels are considering a player swap to allow Wallaby Jack Maddocks to return to his native Sydney.

He could be the fly-half New South Wales are looking for.

Maddocks is fast, plays with good lateral vision and runs excellent support lines, yet there has always been a feeling that his talents were wasted on the wing, where he has largely played his rugby for the Rebels and Wallabies.

Maddocks is a player who can run at a gap and receive a pass, but appears to be better the more he has the ball in his hands and looks like a frustrated playmaker as he bides his time out wide.

There hasn’t been a player who seems to have ‘time’ like Maddocks does since Stephen Larkham made the transition from fullback to fly-half.

That’s not to say Maddocks is a Larkham in waiting, but he does possess a greater threat than either Mason or Harrison when running the ball. These abilities, coupled with his Wallabies and Australian sevens experience, make Maddocks a more than interesting prospect as a fly-half for the Waratahs if they can secure his services.

The Waratahs have some potency in the backline attack, but it is one void of one of two players that could tear a defence apart. Beale has played his best rugby, as has Karmichael Hunt, and neither should be banked on causing as much havoc as they have done previously in years gone by.

That is not to say they won’t add value and experience to the Waratahs backline, but where will points come from in this backline?

Junior Wallabies winger Mark Nawaqanitawase is an exciting prospect, while Alex Newsome is also developing into a very good winger, but it remains to be seen if these Waratahs backs have the class to breach the defensive systems of the other Australian sides consistently, let alone foreign opposition.

The Waratahs’ backline appears to be their Achilles heel.

They will be a force to be reckoned with in the forwards, yet do not possess the backline to seriously contend for the Australian conference.

Akin to the Brumbies, the Waratahs will look to make their forwards their weapon scoring from driving mauls off lineouts and looking for penalties from set piece.

Such a game plan can only take you so far. A fourth place finish in the Australian conference looms for the Waratahs, but they will earn respect and experience along the way and lay the platform for greater success in 2021 and 2022.

Waratahs Player Movements 2019-20

Ins: Robbie Abel (Melbourne Rebels), Darcy Breen (Sydney University), Joe Cotton (Wests), Max Douglas (Manly), Tetera Faulkner (Melbourne Rebels), Charlie Gamble (Sydney), Tom Horton (Wests), Michael McDonald (Sydney), Tepai Moeroa (Parramatta Eels), Mark Nawaqanitawase (NSW Country Eagles), Triston Reilly (Australia Sevens), Henry Robertson (NSW Country Eagles), Tiaan Tauakipulu (St Kentigern’s College), Carlo Tizzano (Western Force), Joey Walton (NSW Country Eagles).

Outs: Adam Ashley-Cooper (released), BJ Edwards (released), Israel Folau (released), John Folau (released), Bernard Foley (Kubota Spears), Sekope Kepu (London Irish), Tolu Latu (Stade Francais), Will Miller (Brumbies), Tatafu Polota-Nau (Leicester Tigers), Nick Phipps (London Irish), Le Roux Roets (released), Curtis Rona (London Irish), JP Sauni (released), Rory Suttor (released), Tautalatasi Tasi (released), Shambeckler Vui (Brumbies), Michael Wells (Melbourne Rebels).

Waratahs 2020 Super Rugby Squad

Forwards: Angus Bell, Darcy Breen*, Tetera Faulkner*, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Rory O’Connor, Tom Robertson, Chris Talakai, Tiaan Tauakipulu*, Cody Walker; Robbie Abel*, Joe Cotton*, Damien Fitzpatrick, Tom Horton*, Andrew Tuala; Max Douglas*, Ned Hanigan, Jed Holloway, Ryan McCauley, Rob Simmons, Tom Staniforth, Jeremy Williams; Jack Dempsey, Charlie Gamble*, Will Harris, Michael Hooper (captain), Hugh Sinclair, Lachlan Swinton, Patrick Tafa, Carlo Tizzano*.

Backs: Jake Gordon, Michael McDonald*, Mitch Short, Henry Robertson*; Will Harrison, Mack Mason; Kurtley Beale, Lalakai Foketi, Tepai Moeroa*, Joey Walton*; Cameron Clark, Ben Donaldson, Karmichael Hunt, Mark Nawaqanitawase*, Alex Newsome, James Ramm, Triston Reilly*.

(Bold and italics denotes internationally capped player, italics denotes development player, * denotes new signing)

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