Super Rugby preview: Waratahs
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!
The Sydneysiders have failed to live up to the high expectations of their supporters in recent seasons, which means 2014 could be a watershed year for coach Michael Cheika and his troops.
Last Year: 2013 will be remembered as another year of under-achievement for the Waratahs. The season promised much when Cheika was named as Michael Foley's replacement, and although they improved on their 2012 finish, they still finished behind the Reds and the Brumbies and again missed out on the play-offs. The Waratahs' season can be best described in one word: inconsistent. From 16 matches played, they won eight and lost eight. Their season started with a defeat away to the Reds before they beat the Rebels at home. The 'Tahs then suffered successive losses to the Brumbies and Cheetahs before they beat the Blues and Western Force on successive weekends in Sydney. There was more inconsistency during the rest of the campaign with the best results of their season being the 25-20 victory over eventual competition winners the Chiefs in Round 10 and a 72-10 demolition of the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth in Round 12. Interestingly, that latter result, which included 11 tries, meant they finished the league phase of the tournament as the second highest try-scorers. Their tally of 42 tries was only bettered by the Chiefs, who crossed the whitewash on 50 occasions.
This year: Their two pre-season matches saw them losing to the Rebels before they beat the Blues. If they can shed the inconsistency tag and string together a decent winning run, the Waratahs could be the surprise package of 2014. Their first four matches are all against Australian opposition and if they can get through these derbies on a good foot, it will set them up nicely for the rest of their campaign. They will fancy their chances of doing well on their tour to South Africa, as their two matches will be against the Sharks and Stormers at the coast and not against one of the teams on the highveld - a challenge which has proven a difficult hurdle to overcome for several Australian sides in recent years. The latter stages of the tournament will see them playing most of their games on Australian soil, with a visit to Auckland to face the Blues being the exception. This should help them in their bid to reach the knockout phase of the tournament.
Players to watch: All eyes will be on Israel Folau, who set the world alight with several phenomenal performances in his debut season as a rugby union player. Folau with ball in hand is difficult to stop and he will once again be expected to give the 'Tahs attacking momentum from the back. Another player of whom much is expected is Kurtley Beale who returns to his home town franchise after a two-year stint with the Melbourne Rebels. When on song, Beale is one of the game's most creative players and Waratahs supporters will be thrilled at the prospect of seeing him wreaking havoc, on attack, in tandem with Folau. Amongst the forwards, the back-row trio of Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper and Dave Dennis have formed a formidable combination in recent seasons and compliment each other well. Palu, if he stays fit, will be expected to do the bulk of the ball carrying while Australia's John Eales Medal winner, Hooper's ball-winning ability and linking play with the backs makes him one of the world's best openside flankers. Captain Dave Dennis is the less flashy of the three and thrives on doing the dirty work which sets the platform for the other two to shine. Another forward of whom much is expected is veteran hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau who, like Palu, thrives on the physical aspects of the game.
Noteworthy signings: Kurtley Beale (Melbourne Rebels), Nick Phipps (Melbourne Rebels), Jono Lance (Reds), Jacques Potgieter (Fukuoka Sanix Blues), Tala Gray (Biarritz), Matt Carraro (Montpellier)
Noteworthy losses: Berrick Barnes (Panasonic Wild Knights), Drew Mitchell (Toulon), Sitaleki Timani (Montpellier), Lachlan Turner (Reds), Lopeti Timani (Melbourne Rebels), Tom Kingston (Melbourne Rebels), John Ulugia (Clermont)
Prospects: Expect the Waratahs to mount a better challenge this year. They should narrow the gap amongst the frontrunners at the top of the Australian Conference, which will also set them up nicely for one of the play-off positions.
23 February: v Western Force - Home
01 March: v Reds - Home
15 March: v Brumbies - Away
21 March: v Rebels - Home
30 March: v Sharks - Away
06 April: v Stormers - Away
12 April: v Western Force - Away
19 April: v Bulls - Home
25 April: v Blues - Away
03 May: v Hurricanes - Home
18 May: v Lions - Home
23 May: v Rebels - Away
31 May: v Chiefs - Away
28 June: v Brumbies - Home
06 July: v Highlanders - Home
12 July: v Reds - Away
By David Skippers