Super Rugby AU: A new hope for the Waratahs?

The Queensland Reds beat the NSW Waratahs for the first time in 11 matches on Friday night, winning 32-26.

As a Waratahs fan, I’m surprisingly upbeat.

Considering how things stood at the 30th minute with the scores at 19-10, it could have been worse. Moments earlier, Angus Bell was shown the cheese, being harshly singled out for the failures of the Waratahs’ front row. The Reds then took the penalty rather than hammer home their forward dominance.

From here, the Tahs held on until the break and then had an impressive resurgence in the second half, with greater defensive line speed disrupting the fluidity of the Reds’ attacking game. Despite some late moments of ill discipline giving away simple penalties that lost the game, the young Waratahs were valiant in defeat.

And if we’re being realistic, can we ask much more than that?

In retrospect, 2020 was not the greatest of years to purchase my first ever NSW Waratahs membership. With Allianz Stadium being renovated, the Waratahs took two of their three home games out of Sydney. And then COVID-19 hit.

The Waratahs started the season with little positives. A heavy loss away to the Crusaders was followed by an insipid defeat to the Blues, whose success in Super Rugby Aotearoa perhaps casts that game in a different light. A sole victory against a poor Lions outfit at home was followed by back-to-back thrashings at the hands of the Chiefs and Brumbies.

For those last two games, I felt like I was watching players who were giving up. They knew they were poor and didn’t seem to have the collective will power to address the inherent flaws present in their team.

Waratahs players react after a Super Rugby loss

(Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

The forward pack was lacking in ball-carriers. Jack Dempsey was seriously out of form and while both Rob Simmons and Tom Staniforth are workhorses, they are not players who will reliably crash over the gain line.

Lachie Swinton had an abrasiveness about his play that often gave way to ill discipline, while Michael Hooper did what Michael Hooper does, working tirelessly for a cause that was ultimately futile. One man can’t do it all.

In the backs, things weren’t much better. Will Harrison showed moments of excellence interspersed with poor decision making. Kurtley Beale was horribly out of form, while Jake Gordon and Karmichael Hunt were ineffective at providing Harrison with support and direction. And please, don’t get me started on the lack of a quality outside centre.

However, despite these much publicised weaknesses across almost the entire team, I had and still have hope.

Why, you ask?

Partly, because the Waratahs can’t get much worse.

Partly, because the Super Rugby AU competition is essentially meaningless.

Mostly, because there is a changing of the guard happening at the Waratahs.

Reds Waratahs

(Photo by Patrick Hamilton/AFP via Getty Images)

Gone is Kurtley Beale into a well earned pay day in France. In his place is Jack Maddocks, rightfully taking the 15 jersey that he is most suited to play. He showed on Friday what he can bring to this role.

Angus Bell has had a breakout season and deserves his starting jersey, despite struggling against one of the most powerful scrummagers in Super Rugby in the form of Taniela Tupou.

Mack Mason has been deemed surplus to requirements, meaning that Will Harrison has the full backing of the coaching unit to learn and mature in his role, despite the inevitable mistakes he’ll make.

The same backing has obviously been given to Mark Nawaqanitawase and James Ramm. While Nawaqanitawase wavers between highlight-reel finishes and defensive head-scratchers, Ramm has shown a strong all-round game so far in his limited appearances and has genuine speed.

Throw in players such as Will Harris and Carlo Tizzano, and you are starting to see a promising squad developing.

What then should we expect from the Waratahs?

Firstly, they have to beat the Western Force in both games. Even better would be to pull off one or two wins against the other Aussie Super Rugby teams.

Finally, they have to restore some pride to the jersey. They must obviously and overtly improve in their commitment and ability to perform to a game plan, working hard to cover for inevitable mistakes that will come. On Friday we saw perfect examples in the form of Swinton’s defensive effort and mongrel, as well as Harrison and Maddocks’ efforts in chasing down Tate McDermott’s break.

Show us long-suffering fans that you care, and we’ll keep the faith.

For there is nothing more tantalising than hope.

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