The Waratahs’ new era starts now.
Last season they farewelled all but the last of their long-term stalwarts, as captain Dave Dennis departed for Exeter and Benn Robinson retired, ushering in the next generation.
Players like Andrew Kellaway, Jed Holloway, Jack Dempsey and Tom Robertson had their taste of Super Rugby, and the Test fold, in a transitional 2016, and success this year will be as much on their shoulders as anyone else’s.
This will the be the first season that Michael Hooper bears the captaincy solo, with Dennis club captain in 2016, but the 25-year-old has never struggled with an extra load before.
Halves Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley have come out the other side of a challenging 2016, both now a part of a peer-voted leadership team at Moore Park.
This will be a critical season for superstar Israel Folau, ensconced at 13 for NSW, looking to put a mediocre, by his lofty standards, year behind him.
INS + OUTS
IN: Cam Clark (Sevens), Irae Simone (Shute Shield), Mack Mason (QLD U20s), Michael Wells (Brumbies), Dave McDuling (Sharks), Damien Fitzpatrick (Lyon, NRC), Sam Needs (NRC), Sekope Kepu (Bordeaux)
OUT: Cameron Orr (Gloucester), Benn Robinson (retired), Jeremy Tilse (released), James Hilterbrand (released), Tatafu Polota-Nau (Force), Sam Lousi (Hurricanes, Dave Dennis (Exeter Chiefs), Wycliff Palu (Toyota Verblitz), Kurtley Beale (Wasps), Matt Carraro (released), Jim Stewart (released), Zac Guildford (released)
Bernard Foley (concussion), Ned Hanigan (knee), Cam Clark (ankle), Jed Holloway (hamstring), Angus Ta’avao (leg)
The departure of Kurtley Beale left a major hole in the Waratahs’ side and rookie David Horwitz couldn’t quite fill the Wallaby’s shoes in his Super Rugby opportunities.
Enter Irae Simone - a South Sydney Rabbitoh turned Norths Shute Shield star, who helped his side break a 41-year championship drought at the club.
Simone continued his form through the NRC and into preseason, earning himself the starting 12 spot for the Waratahs’ round one clash with the Force.
He mightn’t be the biggest name that’s ever darkened NSW’s door, but he looms as their most valuable acquisition of 2017.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER
It’s not really a close contest when it comes to discussing the Waratahs’ most influential members. Hooper missed just half an hour of the Super Rugby season in 2016 and only one Test of 15 for the Wallabies.
The openside flanker is almost unrivalled through the Australian conference in his endurance, unrelenting in his efforts at the breakdown.
Gibson said it best when Hooper starred in his first game of 2017, a 50-47 trial loss to the Highlanders - “You want to bottle that (Hooper’s) DNA and give it out to everyone else, because he's into everything.”
It might seem like cheating, putting down the same player twice, but if Simone fires there’s no way Michael Cheika ignores him come Test squad time.
As hard as 12 is for the Waratahs to fill, it’s been just as problematic on a national level, with Matt Giteau retiring and Beale injured.
Reece Hodge improved over his Tests in the spot on the Spring Tour, but he still has a long way to go.
Simone could definitely force his way into contention if he and the Waratahs have a flying start to the season.
WHAT THE COACH SAYS
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson hasn’t shied away from calling on his younger players to step up in 2017.
“Many of the things we put in place during that (Michael) Cheika era are still stuff we believe in, are foundation parts of our culture,” he said.
“What has changed is the personnel, it’s probably a transition of all those players who led us through that Cheika era have probably left the team. It doesn’t take long for a team to turn over.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the players that are here, it’s their time. They’re the custodians of the team now and of our jersey.”
WHAT'S A PASS MARK?
Finals will be an obvious aspiration but the Waratahs’ acceptable finish this season is harder to read than most, with their influx of young talent.
At the least they will want to beat their Kiwi opposition more often than they did last year, when they managed a comprehensive win against the Chiefs in their sole trans-Tasman victory.
6th - If they can keep their spine fit and in form, they could win the Australian conference, but most likely spot seems second.