Super Rugby Preview: Waratahs

Date published: February 23 2016

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Before the start of Super Rugby 2016 we take a closer look at each of the sides in the competition. Next up, the Waratahs.

The 2014 champions are without some familiar faces and under the guidance of a new head coach in Daryl Gibson as we approach the new season, but a quality spine remains to one of Australia's best prospects for a Super Rugby title.

It's been many months since the Waratahs were well beaten in last year's semi-finals, but 'Tahs supporters won't have forgotten Craig Joubert's key decision to award a penalty to the Highlanders and yellow card Jacques Potgieter when the game was still up for grabs. Sometimes winning seasons are built around that extra bit of desire to succeed.

Last Year: As defending champions in front of a big crowd at the Allianz Stadium, it couldn't have started much worse for the Waratahs as they were stunned on a Sunday by the Force. 

Four wins from their next five games, the only loss coming to the Highlanders, helped to kick start their season with one of those victories crucially coming against the Brumbies.

With the Waratahs' second and final bye of the season coming in Round 8 they were left with ten straight games to round out the year, impressing with away wins over the Hurricanes and Brumbies, but falling surprisingly again to the Force, this time in Perth. Only a defeat to the Lions blotted a strong finish to the year for Cheika's men which included thrashings of the Cheetahs (58-33) and the Reds (31-5).

That finish allowed the Waratahs to win the Australian Conference to automatically make the semi-finals, where they were outscored at home by the Highlanders five tries to one in a disappointing finish.

Only the Hurricanes had more clean breaks, carries and defenders beaten than the Waratahs, with Israel Folau particularly dominant. More on him later.

This Year: Looking at the schedule the earlyness of the Waratahs' bye weeks sticks out once again, coming in Rounds 3 and 7. In 2015 the depth of an established squad meant that Michael Cheika and his coaching staff were able to rotate with a degree of confidence, but the long list of departures out of Sydney now looks like a problem – the price for that success from two years ago.

The Waratahs haven't just lost essential starters – Sekope Kepu, Jacques Potgieter, Adam Ashley-Cooper – but reliable back-ups in Mitchell Chapman, Pat McCutcheon, Stephen Hoiles and Brendan McKibbin to go with the finishing of Peter Betham and Taqele Naiyaraoro. 

Jim Stewart (centre), Andrew Kellaway (wing), Jack Dempsey and Brad Wilkin (both flankers) all look like youngsters poised for major roles.

Two early contests with the Brumbies look fundamental in the battle to top the Australia Conference while in terms of flight time there are one-week trips to Cape Town and Tokyo to contend with.

A successful campaign however will hinge on any injuries and the fitness of the squad during that long stretch without a bye week.

Key Players: 2015 was viewed as a quiet year for Israel Folau which seems absurd when you consider that he topped the charts for most statistics in the whole of Super Rugby, including carries, metres and offloads. Folau though was short on tries, with five compared to 12 the previous year, and hitting that level of form would go a long way towards the Waratahs winning tight matches.

Michael Hooper has captained the Waratahs in the past but now he takes on the armband permanently with a wealth of experience to his name at the age of 24. Kurtley Beale equally has a major role to play at fly-half early on with Bernard Foley sidelined.

Lastly, this feels like a big year for Will Skelton to go from being not just an insane athlete to a consistent top performer at the heart of the Waratahs' pack, as he pushes to try and start for the Wallabies.

Players to Watch: All eyes will be on Zac Guildford to see how much of an impact he can give the Waratahs out on the wing following his move to Sydney. Guildford's time in Clermont showed promise at times but on reflection was more of a miss than a hit. He knows Super Rugby well and under the right coaching, with Gibson as a confidante, could be a major threat.

Reece Robinson has impressed in pre-season after switching from Rugby League via the Parramatta Eels, with the 28-year-old still mastering some of the positional aspects of his role out on the wing but showing enough pace to suggest he will find his way to the try line.

Finally, tighthead prop Angus Ta'avao has big shoes to fill after the departure of Kepu in the front row.

Prospects: The Rebels are closing in but this still feels like a two-horse race to top the Australian Conference between the Brumbies and the 'Tahs. There are some doubts about their squad depth and how well they will click into gear under a new head coach in Gibson, but they have enough resources to be considered for the play-offs.

Players In: Angus Ta'avao (Blues), Matt Lucas (Manly), Bryce Hegarty (Toyota Industries Shuttles), Jim Stewart (Sydney Stars), Zac Guildford (Hawke's Bay), Andrew Kellaway (NSW Country Eagles), Reece Robinson (Parramatta Eels), 

Players Out: Michael Alaalatoa (Crusaders), Sekope Kepu (Bordeaux-Bègles), Mitchell Chapman (retired), Tala Grey (Toulouse), Pat McCutcheon (Australia Sevens), Jacques Potgieter (Sharks), Stephen Hoiles (retired), Brendan McKibbin (London Irish), Jono Lance (Force), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Bordeaux-Bègles), Peter Betham (Leicester Tigers), Taqele Naiyaravoro (Glasgow Warriors), Ben Volavola (Crusaders)

Fixtures:

Saturday, 27 February v Reds (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Friday, 4 March v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Round 3: BYE
Friday, 18 March v Highlanders (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Sunday, 27 March v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Sunday, 3 April v Rebels (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Round 7: BYE
Saturday, 16 April v Brumbies (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, 23 April v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, 30 April v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, 7 May v Cheetahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, 14 May v Bulls (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Friday, 20 May v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, 27 May v Chiefs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, 2 July v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 9 July v Hurricanes (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Friday, 15 July v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)

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