2013 Season Preview: NSW WARATAHS
by Paul Cook & Brendan Bradford –
The jury was out on how the Waratahs would travel in the 2012 Super Rugby season. Popular assistant coach Michael Foley had moved into the head coaching position vacated by a departing Chris Hickey and the squad was boosted by the return of former heroes Rocky Elsom and Dan Vickerman. On the flip side, they had lost their playmaker Kurtley Beale to the Rebels and had to face life without two of their long time warriors, the retiring Phil Waugh and Al Baxter.
As it transpired, injury robbed them of the services of both Elsom and Vickerman, the former test captain donning the Cambridge Blue jersey only five times and a topsy-turvy start to the season soon descended into disarray as the team lost it’s last eight games in a row, an unwanted record.
With a disillusioned fanbase voting with their feet, it was time for the broom to be swept fully through the corridors at their Moore Park HQ. Foley crossed the Nullarbor Plain to Perth and the Western Force, Vickerman retired and Elsom moved on. In came Wallaby tyro Michael Hooper, former rugby league superstar Israel Folau and a host of talented and hungry young guns.
But the most pivotal change comes at the top, where former Randwick stalwart Michael Cheika brings a wealth of experience and knowledge gained from his coaching stints overseas, to a job that is closest to his heart. The early signs are that Cheika’s Waratahs are fitter and hungrier than their previous incarnation and have a desire to play entertaining, winning rugby and that is music to New South Wales fans’ ears.
Prop Paddy Ryan found his feet in Super Rugby last year. After being around the fringes of the first XV in 2011, the 24yr old from Tamworth forced his way into a starting berth by the end of the year and impressed Robbie Deans enough to grab a spot on the end of season Wallaby tour. Having debuted in the back end of an injury plagued 2011 season for the Tahs, Tom Kingston cemented a fiercely contested wing spot last year and was one of the side’s most consistent threats. The 21yr old speedster’s star is firmly on the rise.
Rugby News sat down with them both recently to discuss the up-coming Super Rugby season and the Michael Cheika inspired ‘revolution’.
It’s fair to say that last year didn’t go quite as planned for the Waratahs, looking back now, what lessons were learned?
Paddy Ryan: “Last year was sort of my breakthrough year so as bad as it was for the team, I was enjoying being a part of it but I’m sure a lot of blokes probably learnt what not to do. We lost a lot of games by a close margin and I think that shows that if you’re a few percent off in any Super Rugby game, you can lose to anybody. We almost beat Queensland in the first round and they ended up being semi-finalists. That was something we certainly took out of it. You can’t afford to be any small percentage off in any game, it’s a giant competition and you’ve gotta compete for the full eighty.”
Tom Kingston: “I think that in a number of ways, it wasn’t as bad as everybody made it out to be. It was unacceptable from our own point of view and from our fans point of view, we understand that, but we lost a lot of games late in the day and it’s just about learning how to close out games and that comes from experience. We had a lot of older guys who were injured last year and those guys know how to win big games but having been in those situations, even though they didn’t fall in our favour, will make us better this year.”
There’s been a lot of personnel changes on and off the field in the off-season, none bigger than the arrival of a new head coach in Michael Cheika. What has he brought to the team dynamic and to the set-up as a whole so far?
PR: “Passion. Being a really big Randwick man and New South Wales man, he’s gone away and learned his trade and brought back a lot of passion. He focuses a lot on the mental aspect and being mentally tough on yourself. That’s probably a lot different to what we’ve done in the last three or four years since I’ve been here and you will see that reflected in the way we play.”
TK: “Knowledge and passion but also, there’s a hardness to him that I think we needed at the Waratahs. There needed to be competition within the group and that’s something that Michael is really big on, everyone competing for their spot and being hard on themselves and on each other. The blokes running out on the pitch should be the best fifteen rugby players in the state, that’s how we’re thinking about it this year. He’s brought things that he sees as important and imparted them on the group and we’ve adopted that really well.”
So, how has pre-season been under the new regime?
PR: “Every pre-season seems like your best I reckon but this one, the way ‘Cheik’’s run it, he’s really generated some genuine competition and he’s really sparked a lot of blokes up to go hard at each other and I think that’s led to some dramatic improvements on the field and that’s why I feel this one is the best. Even though it’s been the shortest, it’s been a lot more competitive than it has been before.”
TK: “I think with ‘Cheik’ coming in with fresh eyes it has sort of re-energised the group. We’ve spoken quite a bit about it being a kind of revolution at the Waratahs and I think that starts with all the pre-season work and we’ve had guys in – not only contracted guys – but a lot of guys from club rugby and they’ve been great in terms of having the squad motivating one another. We’ve done a lot more fitness work than the last three pre-seasons that I’ve been involved in and we’ll feel the benefit of that, we’ve also done quite a bit more physical work with [assistant coach] Darryl Gibson coming over from Canterbury and giving us a taste of New Zealand rugby and how that operates. That’s going to be important for us in terms of dominating the breakdown and we know how vital that is in Super footy.”
There’s been a large influx of younger guys coming on board, has that freshened up the place a bit as well and also added some depth?
PR: “It’s been great. I think the difference between last year and this year is that there’s not a big age division in the team and when you’ve got a lot of young blokes driving through and a lot of your leaders are quite young, I think it can really create that competitive culture. When you look at names on paper, it doesn’t look like there’s a big change in depth but it certainly feels like there’s a lot more depth. You can look around and say that if ‘so-and-so’ was called upon, even though he might not have played Super Rugby yet, he’s ready to go because you can see the way he trains against guys who have. It’s really exciting for us.”
You mentioned the games that were lost by a tight margin last year, do you feel the squad now has that extra one or two percent this year to win those close ones?
TK: “We understand that winning those tight matches is probably a combination of two things; the knowledge and the skill side of things as well as the physical. From a physical standpoint, everyone’s lifting more than they ever have, running further than they ever have so that’s a tick in the box in terms of playing out the full eighty minutes of a game but the confidence comes with being involved in those types of matches and getting across the line. If we can get a couple to fall our way in the first few games of the year, we’re hoping that we can give it a real shake.”
PR: “I don’t think we were lazy in the way we trained last year, I don’t think we worked as hard as we did this year on the physical aspect of things, but I don’t think that was ultimately what was letting us down. We had a bit of bad luck at the start of the year and that rolled into momentum and things really started to capitulate. The preseason has been really hard but we will have more to offer in a fitness aspect because we have prepared differently and that’s why we’ll be playing a different style of rugby.”
As you said earlier Paddy, last season was a breakthrough for you in terms of the Tahs and then your call-up for the end of year Wallaby tour. What are your personal goals this year?
PR: “Earning my spot week in week out with the Waratahs at the moment isn’t going to be easy. Jeremy Tilse is a senior member of the squad now and a very good footballer and obviously we’ve got guys like Benn Robinson and Sekope Kepu who’ve got 50 and 20 odd Wallaby caps respectively. That’ll be my foremost goal because you’ve gotta be playing for the Tahs to want to play anything higher.”
It was your first full season as well Tom, how was it and what are your targets for 2013?
TK: “I really enjoyed it and I learned a lot last year simply by being out there for 16 or 17 matches and from being put in certain situations. You learn where to position yourself on the field a bit better, how to get yourself into a match and how to overcome things in games – say a missed tackle or dropped ball – and get yourself back up. I’ve played two years now and I want to be playing this year so, there’s no real specific goal other than I want to be out there in week one as I’m sure all those other outside backs do as well.”
The British & Irish Lions tour looms large on the Australian rugby landscape – looking forward to it?
PR: “Everybody wants to be a part of that tour in as much capacity as they can, there’s no secrets there and I’m sure if you asked any player possibly going to represent Australia this year, that would be one of their goals. Whether my role is playing for NSW against them or something higher if I’m fortunate enough, that’ll be great but that is a once in a lifetime opportunity. When you see a player of Nathan Sharpe’s calibre who never played against the Lions, I think that can really show you the importance of those tours.”
The Australian conference looks like being hugely competitive this year given the off-season moves between players and coaches, who will be your main rivals?
PR: “If Genia and Cooper are fit then the Reds, going on what they’ve done in the past. That’s the best halves combination in Australia and that tends to win rugby tournaments so they’re going to be the biggest threat but you wouldn’t count out the Brumbies the way they played footy under Jake White last year, they’re really hard to compete against. Any side with Kurtley Beale in is going to be a threat so the Rebels will be tough, especially after recruiting Scott Higginbotham. The Force are in a growing year but they’ll always be hard to beat over in Perth. There will be no easy games, but if you were going to pick one, it would be the Reds.”
TK: “I think that every year you look at the Reds as – not necessarily the benchmark – but they’ve been the most successful team over the past few years. Jake White is obviously doing a good job there at the Brumbies and they’re a tough team to compete against. They don’t necessarily play the most expansive footy but they certainly pin you down in that South African style of forcing you to make mistakes so they’re another red hot contender this year and then the other two franchises are certainly improving. It’s really about injuries for them, if they can stay healthy, they can give it a red, hot crack in a number of games.”
How about the across the competition generally – who do you like the look of in New Zealand and South Africa?
PR: “I think the Chiefs. A lot of people said they only went well because of Sonny Bill last year, so it’ll be interesting to see how they go this year. If they can find a twelve who can generate the sort of go forward off scrum and lineout ball that Sonny Bill was generating, then they can get those big forwards round the corner and they’ll be a very good side that can go all the way again. The Stormers are always strong so if you’ve gotta pick one from each conference, they would be the two, but every year you see a dark horse come out and every year you’ll pick your top six at the start and by the end of it, it’ll probably look pretty different. That’s the best thing about Super Rugby, how tight it is.”
TK: “You’ve got the usual suspects like the Bulls and the Crusaders but the Highlanders look a very strong side this year. They’ve recruited quite well and the way that they play was coming along last year and I don’t think they maybe got as much credit as they deserved. They were particularly good at the breakdown and they played with the best width of any team in Super Rugby last year so if they can continue to improve, I think they’re a chance this year.”