With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. Last up, the Waratahs.
So we come to the champions, a year on from Bernard Foley’s late penalty, the Waratahs will be looking to become the first Australian franchise to retain their title.
While they have a familiar look in terms of their playing squad this season, the biggest question mark surrounds head coach Michael Cheika.
The first man to win both the Super Rugby and Heineken Cup titles as a coach was promoted to become Wallaby boss after Ewen McKenzie’s shock departure last year.
How Cheika handles the dual responsibility will likely play a big role in whether the Tahs can retain their crown. However with the likes of Israel Folau and Michael Hooper in their team, they won’t be short of top notch internationals to lead them.
Last Year: It started with a thumping win in Perth, and ended with Foley’s late three-pointer in Sydney to down the Crusaders. In between the Waratahs proved they were the best team in the competition, winning more games, scoring more points and tries, and producing the tightest defence in the tournament.
In Folau they had Super Rugby’s most deadly finisher, who racked up 12 tries despite missing time through a mysterious throat injury. Even during what some described as a lean year internationally, Folau was outscored only by Julian Savea from tier one nations.
After losing to the Blues in round 12 last season, they rattled off seven straight wins to end the regular season, before turning over the Brumbies and the Crusaders in the play-offs.
Adam Ashley-Cooper was the star in the final, scoring two tries, before Foley held his nerve late on after Richie McCaw conceded the decisive penalty.
This year: It’s almost as you were for the Waratahs from a squad perspective, with the loss of Kane Douglas likely to be the most keenly felt. Now at Leinster, he will need replacing in the second row, but the return to fitness of Dave Dennis should help on that front.
They’ve also lost outside backs Cam Cameron and Alofa Alofa, with the latter particularly impressive last season. That should give Taqele Naiyaravoro more game time to shine, and he could be a breakout star this season.
With a backline that is not far of the Australian three-quarters, as well as a strong pack to it up, they look to be as good a side as last season, if not better with a maiden title under their belts.
In terms of the schedule, the Waratahs would probably have preferred a bye a little later than round three, which will make it hard to get into a rhythm early doors, especially given that they’ll have to play the last ten weeks of the competition without a break.
That long stretch will be grueling, especially with a trip to South Africa to take on the Cheetahs and the Lions late on. While there are tougher away games, the tired bodies may start to struggle by that point.
The Tahs do have a relatively comfortable away schedule however, with just one out of conference game away to one of last year’s play-off sides, a round five trip to the Highlanders.
Key Players: It’s hard to look past Michael Hooper, the standout forward in Australian rugby over the last two years. With his surfer dude looks and all-action playing style, Hooper has stepped up at every opportunity over the last few seasons.
Not quite as much of a limpet over the ball as openside rival David Pocock, Hooper is by far the better link man, and plays an important role in the Waratahs’ dynamic game plan.
With so many attacking threats in the Tahs backline, a support player of Hooper’s standard is absolutely vital, and he will again be at the heart of their success.
Players to watch: Over the last two years Will Skelton has gone from a source of curiosity when the Lions were in town in 2013, to a fully-fledged Wallaby last season. He is still very raw, and for a man his size, he almost seems to be a disadvantage in the scrum, but this will be his chance to show he’s improving as a player.
In the backs, a lot will come down to the form of Bernard Foley. Not as flashy as Kurtley Beale or Reds ten Quade Cooper, but Foley is a supremely gifted footballer with a great turn of pace. With so many options outside him, the Tahs don’t need Foley to do it all himself, and he’s shown the maturity to play the role required of him.
Finally we mentioned Taqele Naiyaravoro earlier, and he’s worth keeping an eye on this season. A try-scorer in a pre-season game against the Chiefs, expect him to get plenty of opportunity to show off his finishing skills this season.
Prospects: Back-to-back wins in Super Rugby are not uncommon, the Blues, Crusaders, Bulls and Chiefs have all managed it. With a relatively strong squad, the Waratahs should again be in contention, especially if they can make a fast start to the season. Michael Cheika’s position is the biggest question mark, and the squad will have to show it hasn’t affected them, but the Tahs should be there or thereabouts. Title contenders
Players in: Sam Lousi (New Zealand Warriors), Kotaro Matsushima (Suntory Sungoliath)
Players out: Kane Douglas, Alofa Alofa, Cam Crawford, Michael Hodge.
Sun, 15 Feb vs Force (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
Fri, 20 Feb vs Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Round 3: BYE
Sat, 7 March vs Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Sat, 14 March vs Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Sun, 22 March vs Brumbies (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
Sat, 28 Mar vs Blues (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
Round 8: BYE
Sat, 11 April vs Stormers (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
Sat, 18 April vs Hurricans (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Sat, 25 April vs Rebels (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
Fri, 1 May vs Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Sat, 9 May vs Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Sat, 16 May v Sharks (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
Sat, 23 May vs Crusaders (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
Sat, 30 May vs Lions (Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg)
Sat, 6 June vs Cheetahs (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Sat, 13 June vs Reds (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)