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FEATURE The Waratahs, self-inflicted pressure, and the crippling weight of expectation

The Waratahs, self-inflicted pressure, and the crippling weight of expectation
3 months ago

The joke years and years ago, well before their 2014 Super Rugby title even, was that the Waratahs were twelve years into a five-year plan. And they were still confident that this detailed plan was going to deliver the success New South Wales rugby fans craved on time.

Fast forward to 2024 and the NSW Waratahs again find themselves in the sights of interstate mirth-makers and frustrated home fans alike.

And the common element, yet again, is that their situation once again is largely of their own doing.

“Waratahs coach Darren Coleman is eager to stay at NSW beyond this season but it is a decision that will be out of his hands, with officials giving the third-year coach four games to show he deserves a contract extension,” the Sydney Morning Herald’s Tom Decent reported on February 1, with the first round of the competition still three weeks away.

“A decision will be made around round four on whether Coleman will remain in charge for the 2025 season. His contract is up at the end of this year,” Decent wrote, having spoken to sources within the Waratahs camp.

It was an incredible revelation for so many reasons.

Darren Coleman
Doubts have been cast over the long term future of Waratahs coach Darren Coleman by the media (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Firstly, the Waratahs opening month of Super Rugby Pacific had them facing their oldest rivals Queensland in Brisbane, the Crusaders in Melbourne at Super Round with seven straight titles coming into 2024, and then the Highlanders and Blues on home turf at Allianz Stadium in Sydney in their first four matches.

Waratahs-Reds games are always tight and never reflect current form; there was no telling at that point what state the reigning Champion Crusaders would be, and only the Highlanders looked a game the ‘Tahs could possibly win of their two home games, with the Blues semi-finalists last season.

So, it was already a hell of a tough bracket of games to basing future decisions on. But strangely, when viewed through the lens of the Waratahs and NSW Rugby management in particular, it didn’t seem so crazy that they were lining up to make yet another kneejerk reaction in their 28-year history.

As it happens, beating the Crusaders 37-24 in Melbourne has been their sole win through the opening six rounds.

With Rugby Australia now running the Waratahs, it makes perfect sense that [Peter] Horne would want to take his time in getting to the bottom of everything, Coleman’s contract extension included.

And it’s worth noting, no decision has been made and Coleman remains Waratahs Head Coach.

Notably, Rugby Australia’s new head of High Performance, Peter Horne, has taken charge of the situation, with Coleman’s future now part of a broader RA review into the Waratahs’ operation – an important review to undertake, given the Waratahs jumped at the chance to hand control over the head office, all in the name of centralisation, and ‘the greater good’ as they claimed at the time.

Subsequently, it has been since reported that the Waratahs were also in financial strife, and that the degree of their outstanding debt is now understood to be much worse than was indicated at the time. To say Melbourne Rebels board members and administrators are watching the situation with interest would be an understatement.

With Rugby Australia now running the Waratahs, it makes perfect sense that Horne would want to take his time in getting to the bottom of everything, Coleman’s contract extension included.

Waratahs
The Waratahs have lost their last four Super Rugby games by just 13 points but the pressure is ramping up (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

The second head-scratching point about the four-week timeframe being imposed on Coleman is that NSW finished both the 2022 and 2023 Super Rugby Pacific seasons sixth on the table, the second-highest ranked Australian side both years.

But coming into 2024, it was hard to see how the Waratahs would break into the top four.

There were always going to be at least three New Zealand sides performing better than them, and as much as losing teams don’t want to read too much into pre-season trial form, two summer thumpings at the hands of the Melbourne Rebels and Queensland already had the red flags raised.

With the ACT Brumbies coming into the season as the top Australian side, another sixth-placed finish for the ‘Tahs should have been gladly taken, at that point.

It was extraordinary that the New South Wales board had any thought the Waratahs could finish much higher than sixth, never mind that they wondered if there were better options than Coleman out there to achieve this.

It’s one thing to put yourself under pressure, but it’s quite another to use unrealistic expectations as the basis for applying this pressure.

And the heat isn’t going away. Michael Cheika’s name has now been thrown up as an option for the Waratahs, with the 2014 title-winning coach with the Waratahs on the market again, after his time with Argentina ended after the Rugby World Cup in France.

With the Waratahs now one win from six rounds – and no decision any closer to being made – the pressure only builds and it hard to believe it’s not taking a toll.

Injuries are already a factor for the Waratahs this season, with Wallabies prop Angus Bell (back) joining fellow Wallabies forward Ned Hanigan (hamstring) and in-form flanker Charlie Gamble (calf) on the sidelines in the lead-up to the 27-21 loss to the Rebels in Sydney last Friday night.

If any moment could sum up the NSW season, it was surely lock Miles Amatosero failing to tap the ball from a penalty in front of the Rebels posts with his team still three points down. The TV cameras were ruthlessly unforgiving as they panned straight to Coleman’s exasperated reaction in the Allianz Stadium coaches’ box.

“It’s getting a bit repetitive now,” NSW Captain Jake Gordon told Stan Sport immediately after the match. “You’ve got to review those moments but something’s not working, especially when the heat’s on us.”

And the heat isn’t going away. Michael Cheika’s name has now been thrown up as an option for the Waratahs, with the 2014 title-winning coach with the Waratahs on the market again, after his time with Argentina ended after the Rugby World Cup in France.

Michael Hooper Michael Cheika
The halcyon days of 2014’s Super Rugby final winners has seen Michael Cheika’s name thrust back into the rumour mill (Photo WILLIAM WEST/via Getty Images)

How real an option he is, or how interested he might be remains to be seen, but already there is a feeling that someone like Cheika might be the only coach capable of taking this Waratahs group further. The last time Australian rugby fans heard this kind of talk, Eddie Jones was parachuted in as Wallabies coach.

But that is how expectation works in New South Wales rugby. That because they have the biggest playing population, and Sydney being the biggest and most important market in Australia, that they should still be achieving levels of success that their playing group isn’t quite ready to reach.

And if the current coach can’t achieve those levels, then they’ll just get someone else in who can.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that RA are running this Waratahs review. Because maybe that might help the NSW board realise the guy best equipped to take this team forward is the guy already working with them.

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Comments

9 Comments
B
Bill 111 days ago

Hi Brett the Tahs are a complete mystery and need to have a deep dive review. Why is it that the Reds keep most of their players but not NSW, they develop them and then let them go off to Brumbies, Rebels, Force

Reality is they should be a powerhouse in Oz rugby and have genuine superstars wanting to play for them. Instead its same old, same old.

Massive debt? that needs a royal commission. When Roger D was Chairman he didn’t spend any money and they were $1m under the cap. Moved to Darcyville in temp accommodation because it was cheaper, then build a new complex. Whoever paid for this NSW Gov’t, Uni of NSW or NSW Rugby it surely wasn’t the Waratahs or was it?

Cheika would be best suited to Melb, if they remain. Friend perhaps not sure, DC should remain involved some how his only weakness is he never had enough experience. Left field suggestion what about someone from NZ, not a fancy pants but a “take no prisoners, harden up you …” type of person

J
JD Kiwi 112 days ago

Hi Brett, it would be tragic if jobs in Aussie rugby couldn't be found for Cheika and Friend.

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