In the first of a series of RUGBY.com.au interviews with Australia’s Super Rugby coaches, Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson talks about the highs and lows of NSW’s 2018 season, how they dealt with the Israel Folau controversy and what lessons they’ve taken to win a title in 2019.
When Daryl Gibson and his coaching staff sat down to watch the Super Rugby final this year, it was bittersweet viewing.
Bitter because the Waratahs had been knocked out in the semi-finals by the Lions, but sweet – for lack of a better term – because of what the Crusaders did to win the final, and back-to-back titles.
On a chilly night in Christchurch, the Kiwi champions rolled out the exact same game plan the Waratahs had formulated a week earlier.
“We knew technically we had the right game plan, we just couldn’t execute for the full 80,” Gibson said.
“The way they (the Crusaders) repelled the Lions maul wave after wave in their 22, time after time, was exactly what we planned.”
Having come from a humbling third-last finish in 2017, making the semi-final was a “fantastic achievement” for NSW.
But after getting close, watching the Crusaders the go on with the job was not so much painful as educational for Gibson and his staff.
Right there – in plain sight – was the gap between the Waratahs and a second Super Rugby title.
STAY IN THE FIGHT
Using the Crusaders’ dominant season and their ruthless win in the final as a guide, the Waratahs coaching staff sat down in August and set themselves a simple challenge: how do we step across that gap?
“We have taken a lot from that and knowing if we are to compete more regularly and really truly give us an opportunity to win the competition, we are really going to have to develop that sense of fight in us. That we will not give up and we will persist longer,” Gibson said.
Some of that change is in the largely undefinable zone of attitude, but several other goals emerging from the Crusaders’ success had firmer statistical parameters. Specifically, around the number 40.
“We have observed what I believe are the three best (rugby) teams in the world at club level, and that’s the Crusaders, Saracens and Leinster," Gibson said.
"What we have learned there is they have very deep, talented squads and they have the ability to rotate and get the best out of each man, to get them to the point where they can win championships.”
Where Gibson says many of his top players were “gassed” by the Super Rugby finals after playing every minute of the season – and June Tests, too – the Crusaders’ best men were still fresh.
“The Crusaders used 44 players across the season and we used the fewest with 34,” he said.
“For us, a lot of our strategy is around “how can we improve the depth of each player and each position” … we know we are going to have to manage our players better this season, and give more players the opportunities to step up and show they can do the job.”
The other clear area of self-improvement required by NSW to become champions again is defence, said Gibson.
The Crusaders conceded 39 tries in 2018. The Waratahs gave up 65.
“So if we’re true contenders next year we have to get that figure under 40. We have to be miserly on defence and build a real toughness to us,” Gibson said.
“One of the biggest challenges for us next season is that we don’t concede as easily as we did in 2018.”
When building a tough defence, it helps to have a tough defence coach and the Waratahs have hired one for 2019 in Welshman Steve Tandy.
After six years as head coach of the Ospreys, Tandy worked with the Waratahs in an unpaid capacity last year, as part of a professional development stint in Australia.
But Tandy was recruited to come on board full-time this year and Gibson – who ran the defence in 2018 – couldn’t be happier, given the recent evidence of defensively strong northern teams beginning to dominate world rugby.
“Steve is going to bring to us a real northern hemisphere sort of style to the defence,” Gibson said.
“The thing I see most in our game that moves the quickest in terms of trends at the moment is defence and we have seen through the Spring Tour just how difficult are to break down, so if we can have a little bit of that next season I think it will go a long way to us being successful.”
Reflecting on the much-improved 2018 season, that saw the Waratahs finish third and claim the Aussie conference title, Gibson said a key element of the success was getting two results in their first two games: a post-siren win over the Stormers and a draw in Durban against the Sharks.
“Often when you are trying to re-brand yourself and transform yourself as a winning team, you need an ounce of luck early in the season to build that momentum,” Gibson said.
A heavy loss to the Jaguares in Argentina followed but a big win over the Rebels was a “turning point in our season.”
NSW went on to win nine games and after two near-misses against the Blues and the Crusaders, they snapped the 40-game losing streak for Aussie teams against Kiwi rivals by beating the Highlanders.
“There is obviously a mindset we have to overcome when we play against the New Zealand teams. We enjoy playing New Zealand teams because they play a very positive style of rugby, particularly against Australian teams where they almost have a sense of arrogance that they can play that way against Australia and get away with it,” Gibson said.
Like the final, NSW leading the Crusaders 29-0 in Christchurch, but losing 31-29, drew mixed emotions.
“We knew then we had a decent 40 minutes in us,” Gibson said.
“But part of being a coach that drives you mad is the inconsistency you have in your team. You are trying to do things consistently.
“Out of that game we took a great deal from our game management. You can’t walk away from being 29 points up and lose a game.”
A crucial win over the Rebels late in the year, and another win over the Highlanders in the quarter-final, were big improvements but the Tahs run came to an end in Johannesburg, when they led 21-0 but were worn down by the Lions strength up front.
Few sporting franchises can get through a year without at least one off-field controversy or distraction, and the Waratahs arrived in the form of Israel Folau’s social media activity.
Folau, a devout Christian, used social media to express his belief that being gay is a sin and punishable by going to hell.
It caused a firestorm of criticism and brought huge media attention on the Waratahs.
Gibson said the month-long saga didn’t derail his team, however, because despite many having different views, the team communicated openly, never fractured and stay focussed on their goals.
“It didn’t (affect us) and I think the reason why it didn’t was that we had done such a good job this year of understanding what we stood for us as a team,” Gibson said.
“You would have thought on the face of it, a big disruption that was going on outside of the team would have had some sort of an impact.
“But inside of the team we were very focused on … our identity, what we were trying to achieve in this season that it didn’t really enter our minds.
“We dealt with it in a real mature way, we spoke about it and I guess through that communication we got to a really good place around making sure that Israel still retained his voice within the team, and then understanding where he is coming from.
“That’s probably the great thing about a team. There are times when we are not always going to agree on our approach, or what we believe in or any sort of principle.
“But what we can agree on is the things said right from the outset, as in “this is what we are and this what we are going to try and achieve together”. That really shone through and that’s how we got through that period.”
Unlike other franchises, the Waratahs haven’t recruited heavily for the 2019 season.
They’ve lost Paddy Ryan, Brad Wikin, Taqele Naiyaravoro and Hugh Roach but expect to sign Adam Ashley-Cooper shortly, and will largely promote players up from their pathway systems.
That consistency is deliberate, says Gibson, and - again – a tip taken from the mob who have proven they do it best.
"In my experience as a coach, the winning teams are the ones that can retain a stable and experienced spine throughout the years,” he said.
"You have got to have, and it is something the Crusaders have done very well, is you have to have the players of their generation, of the decade, and they keep them together for a long time.
"That’s something we have managed to do with the spine of our players and it’s about making sure the change around that spine doesn’t occur every year.
"We believe we are in a nice stable period this season."