Waratahs out to keep playoffs record intact - Super Rugby 2019 Preview
On average, they’ve made the play-offs every second year since their first semi-final clash against the Brumbies 17 years ago, a record of which is the second-equal best in the competition in that time frame, alongside the Hurricanes and Chiefs.
With such a historically strong post-season record, the men from New South Wales will know what’s expected of them as the new season draws closer.
Missing the quarter-finals would be considered a massive failure for last year’s semi-finalists, while securing top spot in the Australian conference must also be considered a priority.
That much is easier said than done, though, and although the quality of the Australian conference is significantly lower than that of its New Zealand and South African counterparts, there are some challengers that the Waratahs will have to contend with.
By winning the signatures of star first-five Quade Cooper and promising No. 8 Isi Naisarani, the Rebels have established themselves as the Waratahs’ main rivals for the Australian conference title less than a year after finishing in a franchise-record position of ninth.
As Australia’s most successful Super Rugby franchise, the Brumbies can never be discounted as a threat to the Waratahs, and while a trip to the post-season is unlikely for the Sunwolves, they turned many heads in 2018.
With an ever-improving squad at the disposal of their new head coach Tony Brown, the Tokyo-based franchise has the potential to spring a surprise or two in the Australian conference.
Nevertheless, given the breadth of talent within head coach Daryl Gibson’s squad, the Waratahs should still edge the Rebels out as favourites to top the Australian conference come season’s end.
There have been plenty of movements in and out of the side over the off-season, but with the likes of Sekope Kepu, Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau still plying their trade in Sydney, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic.
Perhaps the biggest casualty suffered by the Waratahs in terms of transfers is the departure of Taqele Naiyarvoro to Northampton.
The blockbusting winger was in sensational form throughout his second stint in the Harbour City, playing an influential role in the Waratahs’ run to the semi-finals, which included being the first Australian franchise to topple Kiwi opposition in two seasons.
Naiyaravoro ran in a whopping 15 tries to finish second-equal on the try-scoring charts, one shy of Ben Lam’s record-breaking tally of 16.
That sort of strike rate will be dearly missed by the Waratahs, but Gibson has done well to fill the gap left by Naiyaravoro.
Wallabies veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper returns to the squad after a four-year hiatus in the Japanese Top League, while troubled utility back Karmichael Hunt moves south from the Reds in an attempt to work his way back into the national side.
Both players have enough quality to adequately replace Naiyaravoro in the backline, while the capture of John Folau, younger brother of Israel, yields plenty of intrigue.
The rugby league convert played in the NRL for the Parramatta Eels and was internationally capped by Tonga before switching to rugby union last year, where he played in the NRC for the Sydney Rays.
He’s somewhat of an unknown quantity in the XVs version of the game, but if he’s anywhere near as good with ball in hand as his older brother, then the Waratahs are sure to terrorise opposition defences out wide.
Elsewhere in the squad, Bryce Hegarty (Reds), Irae Simone (Brumbies) and Hugh Roach (Rebels) have moved on to Australian rivals, while the loss of Andrew Kellaway to Northampton and Paddy Ryan to the San Diego Legion represent significant losses within the Waratahs set-up.
Gibson has veered towards selecting local youth in a bid to aide those departures, with plenty of newcomers coming into the team from New South Wales-based NRC teams.
The South African second rower has been playing in the Currie Cup over the past few seasons, and with dimensions of 2m and 135kg, he is set to offer a strong physical presence in the pack.
All things considered, the Waratahs appear to be in good stead to challenge for at least another quarter-finals appearance this year, and should they combine the talents of their established veterans and promising youngsters, they could again go even further than that.
Australian Conference Placing: 1st
Player of the Year: Israel Folau
Rookie of the Year: Le Roux Roets
Best Signing: Adam Ashley-Cooper
Breakout Player: John Folau
In: Angus Bell (Newington College), Rory O’Connor (Sydney Rams), Chris Talakai (NSW Country Eagles), Andrew Tuala (Melbourne Rising), Will Harris (Scots College), Le Roux Roets (Pumas), Jeremy Williams (Scots College), BJ Edwards (Canberra Vikings), Hugh Sinclair (Sydney Rams), Rory Suttor (NSW Country Eagles), Patrick Tafa (NSW Country Eagles), Mitch Short (NSW Country Eagles), Will Harrison (Sydney Rays), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Kobelco Steelers), Ben Donaldson (Sydney Rays), John Folau (Sydney Rays), Karmichael Hunt (Reds), James Ramm (Sydney Rays)
Out: Paddy Ryan (San Diego Legion), Matt Sandell (San Diego Legion), Kalivati Tawake (Biarritz), Hugh Roach (Rebels), Nick Palmer (released), Kelly Meafua (Beziers), Brad Wilkin (Rebels), Maclean Jones (released), Nick Duffy (released), Michael Snowden (retired), Bryce Hegarty (Reds), Irae Simone (Brumbies), Andrew Kellaway (Northampton Saints), Taqele Naiyaravoro (Northampton Saints)
Forwards: Angus Bell, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Sekope Kepu, Rory O’Connor, Tom Robertson, Chris Talakai, Shambeckler Vui, Cody Walker, Damien Fitzpatrick, Tolu Latu, JP Sauni, Andrew Tuala, Ned Hanigan, Will Harris, Ryan McCauley, Le Roux Roets, Rob Simmons, Tom Staniforth, Jeremy Williams, Jack Dempsey, BJ Edwards, Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Will Miller, Hugh Sinclair, Rory Suttor, Lachlan Swinton, Patrick Tafa, Michael Wells
Backs: Jake Gordon, Nick Phipps, Mitch Short, Bernard Foley, Will Harrison, Mack Mason, Kurtley Beale, Lalakai Foketi, Alex Newsome, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Cam Clark, Ben Donalson, Israel Folau, John Folau, Karmichael Hunt, James Ramm, Curtis Rona
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