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FEATURE Waratahs 'counter-culture' limits Wallaby options for Joe Schmidt

Waratahs 'counter-culture' limits Wallaby options for Joe Schmidt
3 weeks ago

The words of Rob Penney in February have turned out to be prophetic indeed. Like Jacob Marley’s ghost, they have returned to haunt the Waratahs organisation he left behind. Before the beginning of Super Rugby Pacific 2024, the Crusaders head coach responded to reports the New South Wales board was ready to swing the axe, and decide the future of his successor Darren Coleman by the end of March.

“If that’s accurate, which I understand it is, they haven’t learned anything, have they?” Penney told The Roar.

“I feel really sorry for Darren. No one should be put under that sort of pressure under the situation he went into. It was always going to be a project.

“We’ll probably catch up on the sidelines [ahead of the second-round match between the Crusaders and Waratahs at AAMI Park].

“I reached out to him when I left – just offering anything I could do to support his incoming.”

Darren Coleman’s contract with the Waratahs will not be extended beyond the end of the season (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

On 28th March 2021, much the same happened to the New Zealander, cut adrift unceremoniously only five matches into the Super Rugby season. Penney’s role was assumed by his assistants Chris Whitaker and Jason Gilmore, who failed to win a match for the rest of the season.

If you sense something is rotten in the state of Denmark, you would probably be right. Nobody is entrusted with the task of rebuilding the Waratahs for very long. The restoration clause has a hidden termination date, the trap can be sprung at any time, and the coach is always the man to blame.

In Coleman’s case, a vicious 2024 front-row injury curse was conveniently forgotten. Eight of Coleman’s ten original props or hookers suffered season-ending injuries, and the head coach has been reduced to picking hookers straight out of club football to fill the gaps. It did not matter. On 20th May, Coleman’s departure was confirmed, even though he had led the club to play-off appearances in each of his first two seasons in charge.

A player exodus from Daceyville is likely to ensue: all-world flanker Michael Hooper has already taken wing to the HSBC SVNS Series, while Will Harris, Ben Donaldson and Kurtley Beale [who could have been a top-drawer mentor for young Max Jorgensen] have gone to the Western Force. Other luminaries such as Ned Hanigan, Lachie Swinton, Izzy Perese, Mark Nawaqanitawase and even skipper Jake Gordon are at various stages of following them out of the door.

Promising young players including Harry Wilson and Sione Tuipulotu’s younger brother Mosese, who should be keen to stay, are deciding to leave for foreign shores instead. Australia is losing the micro-battles to build national depth by qualification – via grand-parentage or residency. Mosese sees Sione’s 25 Scotland caps and what a key player he has become for his adopted country. It provides a clearly-defined career path for the younger sibling.

Mosese Tuipulotu
Mosese Tuipulotu has been frustrated at his lack of Super Rugby game time this season and will soon join Edinburgh (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Even those who do travel in the opposite direction, such as leaguer Joseph-Aukuso Sua’ali’i, will find themselves in an unwanted struggle for their places in an overloaded backfield.

‘High-performance function’ is an organisation-wide responsibility embracing recruitment, player identification and development, and sound cultural values. Above all, there needs to be absolute mutual trust between administrator, coach and player, with no hidden agendas.

It is that cultural battle new Wallaby head honcho Joe Schmidt will have to fight with one hand tied behind his back over the next seven weeks, before the two-Test series against Wales. With one heartbeat state dysfunctional, a second expansion franchise under imminent threat [in Victoria], and third still struggling to establish its winning credentials [in Western Australia], he will build his hopes around established facts in Canberra and Brisbane.

Thus far in 2024, the Brumbies and Reds have accrued 84 points between them, 27 more than the Rebels, Force and Waratahs combined. In this article published seven weeks ago I outlined the shape of a likely Wallaby 36-man squad. How does it look now?

In the backs, Suliasi Vunivalu shot himself comprehensively in the foot with the recent double trip red card, and Nawaqanitawase is the only other outstanding big wing in Australia. Schmidt may find a spot for James O’Connor to play the same mentoring role for two young 10s as Nic White performs for the nines.

Up front, the return of hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa to the Force gives Mike Cron a very timely reinforcement at scrum time. When he left for Montpellier three seasons ago, Paenga-Amosa was the biggest and the best scrummaging rake in Australia, and he has lost nothing in comparison with his adversaries in the Top 14. The big man is raring to go.

“I’m so keen to be back in Australia, it’s home,” he said. “I’m really excited to be a part of the Force set-up, especially working with ‘Cronno’ [Mike’s nephew Simon] and the lads that are there.

“Returning to Australia and putting my hand up for the Wallabies again was a big attraction after three seasons in France.

“I’m big on culture on and off the field, so adding to the culture that is already being established is one of the key focus points for me.”

Again, that same word – culture. The key change will occur in a rearrangement of back-five resources. If Will Skelton starts, it will either mean a shift for Seru Uru or Nick Frost to number six; or picking Queensland captain and lineout caller Liam Wright there instead.

In league terms, Wright ranks first in lineout takes, second in attacking ruck attendances [210], sixth in tackles completed and seventh in breakdown pilfers. He is the understated Queensland workaholic, happy to do his work in the shadows, unseen.

But his value is known and understood by the cognoscenti. With Wright and Uru working in tandem early in the season, the Queensland lineout was running at a 90% retention rate and they combined for nine receipts per game. Seru Uru returned for the round 14 game against the Force, and the slickness of the Queensland lineout operation quickly flooded the attacking body of the whole with confidence, like a blood transfusion.

 

It is the first attacking lineout of the match, and Wright has the confidence to enter late and call the throw straight over the top, knowing a fake jump at the tail will also take out his main opponent Izack Rodda in the air, along with his back-lift, hooker Tom Horton.

Wright and Uru are also the twin keys to a successful Reds’ four-man line.

 

The slick interplay between Uru and Wright once again breeds the confidence to take on the best defender and win prime-quality ball where you really want it – from the tail of the line.

The two-phase Queensland try in the 16th minute was as much a reward for the Reds’ excellent lineout variations as it was for the cohesion of their back play.

 

 

This time Uru collects the throw in the four-man line, and the Force D loses track of the movements of blind-side wing Mac Grealy [in the white hat], perhaps mindful of the damage he did starting much closer to the lineout fringes at the beginning of the game. From the Maroon perspective, it all works like a well-oiled machine.

The single biggest advance in the quality of Liam Wright’s play lies in the extra effort and nuance he has added to his ball-carrying.

 

 

Those extra YAC [yards-in-contact] count for a lot, leaving two defenders prone on the wrong side of the ruck as Tate McDermott stoops to play the ball in the first clip, while the quick thinking to release the ball and play it again instantly results in a clean break in the second. Eventually the frustration at being unable to stop Wright on the ad-line boiled over, drawing a yellow card for a high hit by the Force’s Reed Prinsep.

 

‘They haven’t learned anything, have they?’ The words of Penney must be burning in the ears of New South Wales administrators. Dismissing coaches in mid-term is classic counter-culture, if you have any intention to build a culture on solid foundations.

If Hamish McLennan’s gleeful ‘coup’ in signing Eddie Jones before the 2023 World Cup was not enough to prove it, surely the dangers of doubling down and claiming ‘given the circumstances, I would probably make the same call again’ should have been enough to close a circle of needless errors.

In Coleman’s case, it did not. His replacement was apparently mooted as early as the end of March, one short month into the Super Rugby Pacific season. For Schmidt, it means there are only two cultures he can fully trust, and those are in Canberra and Brisbane. To paraphrase the English historian Arnold J. Toynbee, ‘civilisations [cultures] die by suicide, not by murder’. The bulk of Schmidt’s picks will come from the Brumbies and the Reds, with no apology offered.

Comments

138 Comments
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mdbullock9 25 days ago

YAC (Yards after contact in Gridiron football) is a key indicator of victory in football. The more YAC yards given up the less likely you are to win. This is a key stat to analyaze in football and we use it in our rugby tackle analysis.

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Jon 25 days ago

This is a bit dramatic for me, I think the Rebels and Force cultures would be very strong, and if a player is chosen from either, you can be confident they are in a good head space and ready. Whether they quite have the technical or tactical foundations of the other two states is where one would way their risk of selection.

I see no need for Schmidt to worry about that risk in this squad. The main reason I could see a predominance of players from Brumbies and Reds, is simple cohesion. What might the coaching group make of what’s lacking in the Tahs, and to a lesser extent Rebels and Force’s, franchise?

Certainly sides (players) that are running irish plays like we saw from that lovely McDermott long ball with have a head start. I hope the players can continue it at International level. Really liked what I saw of Wright (don’t normally focus on players and just hadn’t seen a lot of him anyway) in that game, can see him being a glue in a Wallaby side too. A with the similar worry of selecting players like Ryan, I think it unfounded to worry so much about forward balance at the moment. Including both Wright and Skelton in the same lineout is not going to lose you games gainst Wales. Nor will any unknown weakenss Wales might find in Ryan be exploited to any great extent. It is the perfect time to introduce such a young player.

What other shortcuts might Schmidt want to make now, just a year out from hosting BIL? When Gamble came on the scene I thought he had a Pocock ability to break game apart along with performing the role of a openside well. I would be very keen to drop Leota/Hooper for Gamble, and in your squad make up, include Uru as a lock. Did you forget to remove Vunivalu from your team? Would you have Meafou in your squad if you could?

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Mzilikazi 26 days ago

Interesting article, Nick. Feel really sorry for Coleman, esp. with the injury woes not being taken into account, and his fate being sealed by the end of March. He did last longer tha Richard Graham at the Reds in 2016. They sacked him after only two games.

The Waratahs have played enough good rugby for parts of all games I have seen to show he and is coaching team are competent, and with a fully fit squad I would wager they would have won games this year. I seem to recall a lot of enthusiasm for him in 2022, his first year with the Waratahs. How ephemeral that was.

Liam Wright is rising with the Les Kiss tide for sure. I wonder if his leadership on top of his lineout prowess might give him a crucial edge at Schmidt’s selection table. It is a shame Harry Wilson is injured, for these early games, as that Qld unit was operating really well. All three men are now powerful ball carriers, Add Uru to that list two. He almost always makes ground in contact, and is a clever offloader as well.

Speaking of offloads, that work by Meafou in the opening mins. of the Cup Final in London was something else. With his size and power, and still just 25, he may end up an even better player than Skelton.

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Jon 26 days ago

Why do you pick the most boringest rugby nation to talk about Nick?

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Wallabies_Larkham 26 days ago

Hi Nick, why not make a play for Andy F as Tahs coach. He has alot of NH experience. Coleman I feel need to get a stint in NH just like my guy did. It would do you alot of wonder and the kind of information you will get from that experience should improve you as a coach. I am not convinced by the Brumbies with their woeful scrums.

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Jez Nez 26 days ago

Sad days in Tah town NB. I look to the NSW chair - we had Roger Davis for 12 years from 2009-2021 and looks like a carbon copy replacement in Tony Crawford (promoted from within the board) from 2021 to now. Penney’s comments on a lack of learning are on the money.

Your comments on WB squad look pretty good to me. I do question Slipper, he’s very much struggling. I know Schmidt has been talking up selecting local but wondering if Scott Sio shouldn’t be in the frame there.

Alex Hodgman another worthy of consideration given Bell’s injury as well.

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d 26 days ago

The Tahs have even surprised me with how dysfunctional they have been. Is there an equivalent of a European club they can copy? One that is in a big city and have underperformed for years!

There is a lot of hype about the fast paced smaller wings Ryan, Toole and Lancaster is it worth having one small one big wing?

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Nick 26 days ago

Great piece Nick, Wright really has grown into a serious player this year. He has always had a good work rate, but his impact and physicality has really gone up a notch on both sides of the ball. I really do hope he gets a run in the gold 6 jersey as he has had a hell of a bumpy road to get there. But, Uru his mate is giving him a run for his money at the moment! And thats not to mention harry wilson who has been injured at the worst time, but I think he still tops the charts for most carries in SR. Not sure how Schmidt is going to fit all of rodda, skelton, uru, lsl, wright and frost on the park but its not a bad problem to have. Good to see the reds lineout humming after the mess vs the drua, I wonder how much that has to do with faessler returning, the force put up a few decent challenges in those clips but the throw and timing was pinpoint. I don’t know what was going on but the left hand edge of the force bled tries all night!

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john 27 days ago

Not a bad squad above but we don’t need Porecki or Donaldson and definitely no Vunivalu. He’s just collecting his paycheck and trying to avoid getting injured. The Reds look so much better without that liability on the field. I’d probably chose Ryan Lonegran over Kalani Thomas.

We badly need a backup for McReight. The risk is Schmidt will try and run McReight in to the ground to eliminate the threat to the All Blacks as Deans did with Pocock. That’s either Tizzano or Rory Scott I’d say. It’s a crime that Thorn was allowed to cruel Hamish Stewart’s career at 10, again to protect the All Blacks.

I’m not sold on Liam Wright. A good super rugby player but that’s all. My rule is test players stand out at Super Rugby level otherwise they are unlikely to cut it at test level. Uru is a must.

JOC would be a very good mentor in the squad and a steady hand when needed. A brilliant centre when given the chance.

Other players on the fringe would be Cale, Canham, Ryan Smith, Bayley Kuenzle, Werchon (he’s going to be great), Anstee (hasn’t pushed on but great potential). Amatesro, Pietsch, and Marky Mark and Perese if they weren’t leaving. Bell of course a must when fit. And Tim Ryan for the experience.

And can we please not have any more of these b…. kiwi props at the Reds constantly trying to cheat at the rucks and giving away penalties. Enough !

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Abe 27 days ago

Not a fan of your picks.

McReight is good at club level but he is too small for international level and has consistently disappointed there. Better to go for larger guys. Kemeney, Valentini, Hooper, Leota, Samu, Swinton, etc.

Aalatoa and Nonga are woeful scrummagers and don’t offer much around the field. Wallabies will not win if the scrum falls to pieces. The fact that Faamissli hasn’t been developed is a tragedy. Need a scrum that doesn’t give away penalties. So looks like a Talakai maybe instead. Best scrummagers need to be selected.

McDermott runs the ball too much and doesn’t fit into a structured attack like Schmidts. Gets isolated too often. Ok off the bench late but not for 60 mins.

Goal kicking has to be one of the top 3 points for a 10 so that does in Gordon and O’Connor. Be better off going for lynagh on that front. Donaldson and Noah seem to be doing best of the established names. QC a better mentor type guy than OConnor as well if he’s playing.

Daugunu has been the most consistent 13 and breaks the line a lot so must be in the squad. Joost has also been good.

Richie Arnold playing well for Toulouse and is a preeminent lineout jumper so needs to be in. Latu also playing well for La Rochelle and is better scrummager than the Aussie choices so should be in. The big guy at the Tahs Amataroso I think it is needs to be developed as well. Otherwise the team will be too small.

Hodge is a better choice at fullback than Wright. Latter makes too many mistakes. Not sure if Hodge available.

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