Waratahs looking to get back on top
SUPER RUGBY PREVIEW 2018 - TEAM-BY-TEAM: In the 13th instalment of our 15-part build-up to the season we look at the next Australian team - the Waratahs.
It's been three seasons since the Waratahs took home their maiden title, and each one has been worse than the last. From an 11-win season in 2015 that saw the side finish 2nd in the round-robin, the Waratahs fell to their worst ever result in 2017 only managing four wins.
For Kiwi coach Daryl Gibson this season will be make-or-break. The deterioration of the side's results under his watch hasn't gone to plan for the Waratahs' succession planning. Gibson was the backs coach during the 2014 championship season.
"2018 is a new start for us, at a new home with a new attitude and approach. We are fully aware of the expectations there are of us as a team and me as a coach. Aside from the obvious goal of winning, we want to implement a style of play that we are known for," Gibson told Green and Gold Rugby.
"At the same time, we want to be a fit and mobile team which is reflective of the players we have recruited.
The biggest off-season addition is the return of superstar Kurtley Beale, who is expected to return at inside centre and re-form his successful combination with Israel Folau. Beale's biggest benefactor will arguably be flyhalf Bernard Foley, who plays best when Beale shoulders some of the load.
Incumbent halves Nick Phipps and Foley may come under pressure from young pairing Jake Gordon and Mack Mason. Gordon, especially, gives the Waratahs a running game from 9 that Phipps cannot. Mason is an Australian under-20 flyhalf that could be the Waratahs future at 10.
One of the shortcomings of last season was only having one true centre in Rob Horne on the roster, with Folau offered as cover. The return of Beale, as well as the signing of Force star Curtis Rona and Bay of Plenty midfielder Lalakai Foketi has bolstered the midfield depth. One of the NRC's best emerging players of a couple of seasons ago, centre Irae Simone, could also be ready for a breakthrough season.
There is no question of talent at the Waratahs, with three of best players in the World in Michael Hooper, Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale. The bigger question will be whether they can finally pull it together under Gibson's structures and a young pack.
There were suggestions last year the pack was ‘unbalanced', with too many ball-handlers in the back row and not enough big bodies to bring physicality. The addition of Rob Simmons from the Reds should add some size and line-out stability, as well as young Brumbies lock Tom Staniforth who makes the move north to chase a starting role.
Michael Hooper will lead a young back row with emerging talent Jack Dempsey, Jed Holloway, Queensland product Maclean Jones, ex-Rebels open side Will Miller and highly touted youth prospect Brad Wilkin.
The front row has experience in Sekope Kepu, but is fairly green with young starters in Tolu Latu and Tom Robertson. A host of babies in relative terms for props join the squad in Harry Johnson-Holmes, Cody Walker and Shambeckler Vui.
"We have put a strong emphasis on strength and conditioning in our pre-season preparations. This is one area that let us down in previous years and if we want to play an expansive, positive game of rugby, our players need to be in the physical condition to do so for 80 minutes," Gibson said.
All the talk from Gibson indicates that the Waratahs will play an expansive game, much like the success found during the 2014 season. The biggest test for the side will be depth. The pack is very young, especially in the tight five. If injuries play a part then the Waratahs set-piece will suffer.
They may have the best backline in Australia, the addition of Curtis Rona is a gem. He was a big part of the Force's attack and had a major impact at Super Rugby level. Adding a quality centre allows Folau to move back to fullback.
The question will be whether the forward pack can hold up to allow the backs to hit their straps.
Our 2018 Predictions
Australian Conference Placing: First
Player of the Year: Michael Hooper
Rookie of the Year: Brad Wilkin
Breakout Player: Mack Mason
Best Signing: Curtis Rona
Super Rugby placing: Third
Best finish: Champions in 2014
Worst finish: Sixteenth in 2017
In: Kurtley Beale (Wasps), Lalakai Foketi (Bay of Plenty), Harry Johnson-Holmes (NSW Country Eagles), Will Miller (Rebels), Alex Newsome (Force), Nick Palmer (Hawke's Bay), Curtis Rona (Western Force), Rob Simmons (Reds), Tom Staniforth (Brumbies), Lachlan Swinton (NSW Country Eagles), Cody Walker (Sydney Rays), Shambekler Vui (Force).
Out: Andrew Deegan (Connacht), Rob Horne (Northampton), David Horowitz (Rebels), Matt Lucas (Brumbies), Dean Mumm (Retired), Will Skelton (Saracens).
Squad: Kurtley Beale, Cam Clark, Jack Dempsey, Damien Fitzpatrick, Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Jake Gordon, Ned Hanigan, Bryce Hegarty, Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Maclean Jones, Andrew Kellaway, Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Mack Mason, Ryan McCauley, Kelly Meafua, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Alex Newsome, Nick Palmer, Nick Phipps, Hugh Roach, Tom Robertson, Paddy Ryan, Matt Sandell, Rob Simmons, Irae Simone, Tom Staniforth, Lachlan Swinton, Shambeckler Vui, Michael Wells, Brad Wilkin.
* Don't miss the remaining Australian teams later this week.