With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Next up, the Waratahs!
Doron Katz reports from Sydney.
Last Year: The Waratahs went through the regular pre-season media hype in 2012, perpetuated with the appointment of Michael Foley as head coach, as well as boasting strong talent in their playing roster, including the signing of South African speedster Sarel Pretorius. The team on paper were very strong, but theory is never a formality in practice, in the world of rugby.
The 'Tahs started the season off with positive signs, with Pretorius having a man-of-the-match debut performance against the Reds in Sydney, only to have victory snatched from their hands in the last minute, losing 25-21. The Tahs then travelled to the Highlanders, only to swallow a bitter one-point loss.
With the Sydney injury curse continued from the year before, where the 'Tahs suffered a debilitating string of injuries that truly stretched their depth, as they had to make do without the likes of skipper Rocky Elsom before the season even started, as well as Dan Vickerman, Drew Mitchell, Lachie Turner and Berrick Barnes, with the latter being the only player able to recover enough to contribute significantly in 2012.
The 'Tahs travelled to Hamilton a week later but were humbled 30-13 by the eventual competition champions, the Chiefs, but bounced back with a tense 23-18 win over the Force in Perth. They then recorded a moral-boosting back-to-back win over the Rebels in Melbourne, and were very impressive against the competition-favourites, the Crusaders, in Canterbury a week later, going down 37-33, however that marked the steep decline in the Waratahs' fortunes for the remainder of the season, culminating in an incomprehensible eight-game loosing streak, starting with a 23-6 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra, then a demoralising 27-24 loss at home to the Bulls, a 19-13 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town and a shocking 35-34 loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. The 'Tahs then loss 33-12 at home to the Hurricanes, before the mid-season international break.
Their four-week break didn't do much for their confidence, loosing 19-15 to the Brumbies at home before a 32-16 decimating loss to the Reds, in their final match of the season, to finish a disappointing 11th overall in the combined ladder.
This year: The coaching and playing rosters have once again changed, with Michael Cheika taking over the coaching mantle from Michael Foley, who failed to received support from the board and left for the Force. It would be unwise to expect an explosive season, and whether Cheika can do for the 'Tahs what Jake White has done for the Brumbies last year, remains to be seen. The team morale is extremely low, with talk of a mass exodus after this season, it looks ominous, but if White was able to pull the bottom-dwelling Brumbies to be one of the best Australian teams in the space of one season, anything is possible.
Players to watch: On the wing, we will see a more seasoned Tom Kingston hopefully assert more dominance, and with Mitchell and Turner also fit, the 'Tahs should have some options there. Israel Foulau will no doubt be what the media will most likely pay attention to, and whether he is able to adjust from League and Aussie Rules into rugby easily, and since the 'Tahs have enough depth on the wing, the only other logical position for Foulau is at number 15, which is a critical position, but that then leaves the question of where Adam Ashley-Cooper will play. We will also most likely see a strong season for Tom Carter in the centres.
Noteworthy signings: The revolving door to the coach's office at Moore Park continues to turn, with the 'Tahs swapping Michael Foley for Michael Cheika, a Sydney-native who spent his time coaching in France. Israel Foulau has been a signing out of the blue, after he announced he was leaving Australian Rules, everyone had speculated on him signing on in Rugby League, or the more remote chance of playing rugby union in Europe, but credit to the Waratahs who swooped in on him. Flanker Michael Hooper is another strong signing, moving to Sydney from Canberra, to bolster the Waratahs at line-out, and as an established Wallaby, will bring recognition to the second row.
Noteworthy losses: Chris Alcock has been a silent hero at the Waratahs over the years, but has left the Waratahs to follow last year's Waratahs coach, Michael Foley to the Western Force. The 'Tahs will also be without fly-half Dan Halangahu who has gone to Italy, and inspiring forward Dean Mumm, who has left for England. Ex-Wallaby captain Rocky Elsom has also left, along with Dam Vickerman, who both struggled to get on to the paddock in 2012, both failing to overcome their injuries. South African marquee speedster Sarel Pretorius also failed to make his mark in Sydney, and will be going back to the Cheetahs, in South Africa.
Prospects: It is a tradition here at Moore Park, for the Waratahs to get the bride's attention, only to be left at the alter aftwards, so to speak. The Waratahs have always had a promising build up to the season, only for things to break down. A new coach is the administration's way of injecting new optimism and mojo back into Australia's biggest underachievers, who have had crowd attendances last year drop to an average below 10,000.
The Waratahs kick-off their campaign in round 2, after receiving a first round bye, when they travel to Brisbane to take on the Queensland Reds, in a difficult encounter. They then take on the Rebels in round three at home, in what should be a Waratahs win, but the Rebels bolstered by O'Connor and Beale may spoil the party. After travelling to Canberra to face the Brumbies in round 4, they will have three home games, against the Cheetahs, Blues and Force, which Chaika will pencil in as must-win. Their draw overall is quite favourable, considering they play the Chiefs at home, and avoid the Crusaders altogether.
With the fixture Gods favouring them this year, the only thing to hold them back will be their gameplan, and baggage they will carry from years of disappointment. If Chaika can instil confidence and inspiration, the Waratahs should finish no lower than second in their conference, but a more conservative prediction will have them at third, with the Brumbies most likely to edge them into second spot.
23 February v Reds - Away
2 March v Rebels - Home
9 March v Brumbies - Away
5 March v Cheetahs - Home
24 March v Blues - Home
31 March v Force - Home
6 April v Hurricanes- Away
19 April v Chiefs - Home
27 April v Bulls - Away
4 May v Kings - Away
11 May v Stormers - Home
18 May v Brumbies - Home
24 May Rebels - Away
31 May Crusaders - Away
9 June v Force - Away
13 July v Reds - Home