What lies ahead: the Waratahs

With the new Super Rugby season kicking off in less than a month, we're taking a closer look at the five Australian franchsies and this week we turn our attentions to the Waratahs. [more]

What lies ahead: the Waratahs

With the new Super Rugby season kicking off in less than a month, we’re taking a closer look at the five Australian franchsies and this week we turn our attentions to the Waratahs.

The New South Wales side entertain the Lions in Sydney on June 15 in the last Saturday game before Warren Gatland’s troops take on the Wallabies in Brisbane.

And if the proximity of the Test series doesn’t add a little extra spice to the fixture, the fact that the last encounter between the two teams was memorable for all the wrong reasons may mean there’s a little bit of an historical hangover, even if both sides stay away from talking about the past.

Duncan McRae’s off-the-ball assault on Ronan O’Gara back in 2001 left a sour taste, while four yellow cards meant the fact that the Lions recorded a 41-24 victory was almost entirely overlooked by much of the media.

Fast forward 12 years and the Lions will be looking for a similar scoreline but a far less eventful encounter and a more convincing performance.

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Just exactly how hard they will have to work to achieve the first and third of those aims may depend largely on how many Waratahs are in the running for a place in the matchday 23 for the Wallabies seven days later. National boss Robbie Deans hasn’t officially decided whether to let his any of his squad represent their franchises at any time during the tour but it’s nigh on certain that he won’t allow a single one of them to play for the Waratahs if they’re in his plans for the Suncorp.

A total of 13 Waratahs were named in Australia’s 49-man pre-season party earlier this month and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see as many as 11 of them in serious contention for a first-Test place next summer. The absence of so many first teamers would obviously leave the Waratahs’ hopes of a famous victory over the tourists a heavy blow but they do at least have a little bit of history to fall back on.

New South Wales have beaten Britain and Ireland’s elite on three previous occasions, including a 28-3 mauling back in 1930. And while the same one-sided score would be a huge shock regardless of how well or how poorly the next pride of Lions perform in Australia, predictions of a new dawn in Waratah country could mean the side are in fine spirits by the time the Lions arrive in town. The appointment of new head coach Michael Cheika has been followed by a conscious decision to reconnect with the public and give the supporters a side to really be proud of, and what better way to achieve that aim to defeat the world’s most-famous touring team?

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Adam Ashley-Cooper is part of a Waratahs squad packed with Wallabies

History

Like the subject of last week’s ‘What lies ahead’, the Reds, the Waratahs were an original Australian inclusion in Super Rugby but, unlike their counterparts from Queensland, they’ve never lifted the southern hemisphere’s premier trophy.

Not that they haven’t come close, though – they’ve been beaten finalists on two occasions in 2005 and 2008 and suffered defeat at the semi-final stage on three further occasions in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

They’ve finished fifth three times in the 17-year history of Super Rugby and have only twice ended the campaign below ninth yet you get the feeling that the Waratahs faithful would swap consistency for glory any day of the week.

Last time out

The Waratahs were a long way from glory in 2012, though, as they finished a lowly 11th in the standings. It’s not that they lost their consistency – they just consistently lost. After a strong start to the year, the Waratahs concluded the campaign in disastorous fashion, losing their last eight games to play no part in the race for the play-offs.

It was their second lowest finish in Super Rugby history and it featured back-to-back wins just once in 18 games. So from being nearly rans by finishing second, third and fifth (twice) in the previous four years, the Waratahs suddenly became no hopers while the Reds and Brumbies battled for Australian conference supremacy and the New Zealand and South African sides competed for the title at the back end of the season.

Ones to watch

Michael Hooper

The young openside switched from the Brumbies in the summer and is expected to make a huge impression at his new franchise. Hooper was outstanding for his old team last term and went on to have an even bigger impact for the Wallabies in the second half of the year.

The 21-year-old won three man-of-the-match awards in five Rugby Championship outings for his country and produced another stellar showing in the win over England in November. Few players can boast such a rise to prominence – a rise that was even more remarkable given that he finished the previous season as third-choice in Canberra.

His signing could spark a turnaround in fortunes for the Tahs, especially if his work at the breakdown and link play in the loose can help provide quick ball for a hugely-talented backline that failed to fire in 2012. And while they’ll be plenty of pressure on the 21-year-old to match last year’s heroics, his relaxed and down to earth attitude off the field and his hard working approach on it should see him at least come close to repeating the feat.

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The NSW faithful will hope Michael Hooper brings his Wallaby form to the Waratahs

Israel Folau

Can you think of other any past or present star of our game who has played two professional sports at senior level but neither have been rugby union? No we can’t either. Israel Folau certainly appears unique in that regard. Folau’s switch from Australian Rules Football via rugby league has been the most-talked about move of the summer and the 23-year-old is certain to garner plenty more publicity whether he succeeds or fails in the 15-man game.

Widely tipped to return to league with Paramatta before the Waratahs swooped, Folau may have missed out on a spot in the pre-season Wallaby squad but Robbie Deans hasn’t ruled against adding him to his party if he proves his worth in Super Rugby. And a whole host of big names expect the youngster ever player to represent Australia in the 13-man code to do just that, with George Gregan, Eddie Jones and Lottie Tuqiri among those tipping him to make a major impact.

Folau’s CV certainly makes impressive reading. He made his NRL debut at the age of just 17 and broke Billy Slater’s league record for most tries in a debut season after notching 21 in 26 appearances; he was named NRL Rookie of the Year in 2007 and went on to play in two Grand Finals, five State of Origin games and win seven caps for the Kangaroos; he picked up the man of the match award in one of those Origin victories for Queensland, scored five tries for his country and was named the Centre of the Year at the prestigious Daily M Awards in 2008. Not bad for a guy who should still have the prime years of his career ahead of him.

Drew Mitchell

2013 can’t be any worse for Drew Mitchell than 2011 or 2012. We’re not trying to tempt fate here but surely his horrific run of injuries can’t disrupt yet another season?

Mitchell appears to have been cursed during the past two campaigns, with ankle and hamstring problems seriously restricting his appearances for club and country.

The Wallaby wing has played very little rugby since suffering a horrific ankle injury during the Waratahs’ Super 15 clash with the Reds in April of 2011. A dislocated ankle and a fractured fibula saw him miss the remainder of the domestic campaign and the entire Tri Nations triumph and it looked set to rule him out of the World Cup. Mitchell somehow recovered in time to win a place in the squad for the global gathering in New Zealand but a torn hamstring in the pool game against Russia – a match in which he had already scored two tries – saw him head home early.

Further ankle problems then prevented him from featuring in the first four months of the 2012 Super Rugby campaign as the remnants of his 2011 setback refused to fully disappear. Scans revealed complications with a bone spur which then ruptured a tendon, leaving Mitchell facing surgery and a 12-month lay-off and bringing his dream of facing the Lions to a premature end.

But, once again, Mitchell fought his way back ahead of schedule, discovering that surgery wasn’t necessary and making a surprise international comeback in the Rugby Championship, before featuring three times on the autumn tour of Europe.

And while his recent run of injuries suggest his goal of facing the Lions with the Wallabies as well as the Waratahs is still a long shot, history tells a different picture. Prior to his first ankle problem, Mitchell was the Wallabies’ first-choice wing. Only Chris Latham has scored more than his 10 tries at World Cups, while Mitchell just needs one more score to jump into third place in the list of Australia’s all-time top try scorers with 31. His 63 caps mean only Stephen Moore and Adam Ashley-Cooper boast more Test experience within the current Wallaby set up and that know how could prove vital when the Lions come calling.

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Drew Mitchell will be targetting an injury-free season with the Tahs

Coaching staff

Former Leinster boss Michael Cheika is the main man at the Waratahs, having replaced Michael Foley who left for the Force at the end of last season. Like ex-Bath hooker Foley, Cheika has a deep knowledge of the British and Irish game that will no doubt help him prepare his side for the clash with the Lions. But for now the 45-year-old’s prime target is to help the Waratahs return to winning ways domestically given their terrible run last term.

Cheika certainly knows how to win big, having guided Leinster to their first Heineken Cup crown back in 2009 after claiming the Celtic League title the previous year. He is widely credited with creating the foundations that have enabled Joe Schmidt and co to build something of a continental dynasty with two further Heineken trophies in the three seasons that followed his departure for Stade Francais.

Cheika’s time in Paris was somewhat less successful but on-field disappointments have to be to be tempered by off-field disasters that left the club fighting for its financial survival. And despite the fact that Stade finished 11th and seventh and failed to qualify for the Heineken Cup in his two seasons in France, Cheika was always likely to get another big job and it was equally likely that it would be would back in Australia.

The Force were rumoured to be interested prior to Foley’s decision to move to Perth but the Waratahs were always the most probable destination given his links with New South Wales. Cheika was a favourite at Sydney club side Randwick, making more than 300 appearances at a time when they dominated the domestic scene and also represented NSW as a combative back row.

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Michael Cheika and Alan Gaffney lifted the Heineken Cup with Leinster

Cheika is joined on the Waratahs coaching staff with two more men with vast experience of rugby on these shores, with Alan Gaffney and Daryl Gibson also hoping to bring glory to Sydney having tasted plenty of it elsewhere.

Gaffney was Cheika’s assistant when Leinster were crowned 2009 European Champions, with the hugely experienced 66-year-old having already served as head coach of the province, winning Celtic League honours in 2002. He went on to gain more domestic glory after moving to Munster before heading back to Oz to become Wallaby backs coach in the summer of 2005. His switch of hemispheres was shortlived, though, with Saracens his next destination in 2006.

Hugely respected on both sides of the equator, Gaffeny returned to Leinster under Cheika’s stewardship in 2008 and also worked with the Ireland national team prior to his latest return home in 2011.

Gibson enjoyed a stellar playing career in both hemispheres, winning four Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders in 1998, ’99, 2000 and 2002 before joining English Premiership side Bristol after the last of those triumphs.

The 37-year-old moved to Leicester after Bristol’s relegation and went on to play close ton 100 games for the Tigers, winning Premiership and Anglo-Welsh titles in 2007 and coming close to further success on numerous other occasions.

Capped 19 times by the All Blacks between 1999 and 2002, Gibson took his first steps into coaching with Glasgow Warriors where he took on a player and assistant coach role in 2007/08. He then moved back to Canterbury, serving as assistant coach for four years until the end of last season, before joining the Waratahs after Cheika’s appointment.

NSW Waratahs squad for 2013

Forwards: Ollie Atkins, Dave Dennis, Kane Douglas, Damien Fitzpatrick, Michael Hooper, Sekope Kepu, Pat McCutcheon, Wycliff Palu, Greg Peterson, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson, Paddy Ryan, Jeremy Tilse, Lopeti Timani, Sitaleki Timani, John Ulugia

Backs: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Peter Betham, Tom Carter, Cam Crawford, Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Grayson Hart, Michael Hodge, Rob Horne, Tom Kingston, Brendan McKibbin, Drew Mitchell, Lachie Turner

The Lions in Sydney:

The Lions have played 40 games in Sydney at an average of more than 3.6 on each tour. One of the world’s most-talked about cities has featured in every single one of the Lions’ 11 tours to Australia and hosted an incredible 20 matches across the first three of those adventures.

A total of 12 of the 40 fixtures have been Tests, with the Lions triumphing on eight occasions for a 66 per cent win rate.

It’s the Wallabies who have enjoyed the first and the last laugh, though, thanks to victory in the first-ever Test in Sydney in 1899 and the most-recent encounter in 2001.

P 40 W 30 D 2 L 8

1888: New South Wales 2 Lions 18
New South Wales 6 Lions 18
Sydney Juniors 0 Lions 11
New South Wales 2 Lions 16
Sydney Grammar School 2 Lions 2
University of Sydney 4 Lions 8

1899: New South Wales 3 Lions 4
Metropolitan 5 Lions 8
Australia 13 Lions 3
New South Wales 5 Lions 11
Metropolitan 8 Lions 5
Australia 10 Lions 11
Australia 0 Lions 13
Combined Public Schools 3 Lions 21

1904: New South Wales 0 Lions 27
New South Wales 6 Lions 29
Metropolitan 6 Lions 19
Australia 0 Lions 17
Australia 0 Lions 16
New South Wales 0 Lions 5

1908: New South Wales 0 Lions 3
New South Wales 0 Lions 8
Metropolitan 13 Lions 16
New South Wales 6 Lions 3

1930: New South Wales 10 Lions 29
Australia 6 Lions 5
New South Wales 28 Lions 3

1950: New South Wales 6 Lions 22
Australia 3 Lions 24
Metropolitan 17 Lions 26

1959: New South Wales 18 Lions 14
Australia 3 Lions 24
 
1966: New South Wales 6 Lions 6
Australia 8 Lions 11

1971: New South Wales 12 Lions 14

1989: New South Wales 21 Lions 23
Australia 30 Lions 12
Australia 18 Lions 19

2001: New South Wales 24 Lions 41
Australia 29 Lions 23

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