"I wanted to do it on my merit": Why NSW legend Chris Whitaker stayed away for a decade

by Iain Payten

As the first to man to win 100 caps for NSW, Chris Whitaker is on the dais when it comes to the Waratahs’ most-loved sons.

And born with a healthy streak of sky blue in his veins, Whitaker never stopped feeling like a Waratah either. 

After he finished his decade as a NSW player and went to Ireland, the blond halfback would regularly text his successor Phil Waugh and catch up with games and Super Rugby scores.

“I remember being in the Greek Islands for the 2008 final (Waratahs v Crusaders) and I couldn’t find it on TV,” Whitaker said.

“So I ended up reading the updates via a blog on FoxSports. I was refreshing it every ten seconds.”

When the Waratahs finally won a title in 2014, Whitaker had moved into coaching and was now across in France.

NSW players dedicated the win to the men who’d fought all those battles before them, and Whitaker’s name was one of those raised.

Chris Whitaker is returning to NSW. Photo: Getty ImagesBut while he was always watching from afar, it was exactly this deep-rooted connection to the Waratahs that kept Whitaker away for so long.

When Michael Cheika - who Whitaker had played under, and coached with, in Ireland and France - took over the Tahs in 2013, he tried unsuccessfully to get Whitaker to come on board as an assistant.

And when Daryl Gibson reached out again earlier this year, still Whitaker paused.

“I was actually reluctant to come back,” Whitaker told RUGBY.com.au.

“I have always had in the back of my mind I don’t want to come back because I was an ex-player or an ex-captain or whatever. 

“I don’t want it to feel like that’s why I have been given the opportunity to come back. That’s why I stayed overseas as long as I could, to learn as much as I could and develop and succeed as much as I could as a coach.

“I am trying to do the coaching thing on own merits. Not because of what I have done before, or where my brother (ARU performance boss Ben Whitaker) works or something. That was always the  big driver for me.”

It’s been twelve years since Whitaker last wore sky blue though, and he ultimately decided to say “yes” to a Waratahs return.

He accepted an assistant coach gig - earned on merit - and last week, an older and wiser Whitaker walked back into NSW headquarters, slipped on the old logo and reported for duty.

He’ll coach the Sydney Rays in the upcoming NRC, serve as an assistant to Gibson next season and likely be considered as a future head coach down the track, along with Simon Cron.

“It’s been 12 years now. It feels a bit surreal. It certainly feels good to be back. A lot of things have changed since I was last here but it’s good to be back,” Whitaker said.

“It was the right time and a good opportunity. Obviously they had a great season (in 2018) and are keen to build on that again. It’s really exciting.”

Whitaker debuted as a Waratahs player in 1997 and finished ten seasons later with 107 caps.

He took over the captaincy from Matt Burke for his last three seasons, played 31 Tests for  Australia and even captained the Wallabies. (Whitaker was in fact picked 84 times, but was stuck behind George Gregan).

Whitaker shifted to Leinster in Ireland in 2006 and played under Cheika - winning the European Cup title in 2009 - and then moved into coaching under the now Wallabies coach in 2010. 

He  moved with Cheika to Paris, to coach at Stade Francais in 2012-13, before moving to the south of France, where he coached at Narbonne and then Montauban.

“I am a bit nervous,” Whitaker said. 

“Obviously I have been in a different system for the last eight years, I have seen how different coaches do things.

“At the moment I am jumping straight back into with the NRC, so its a good way to get back my feet back on the ground and learn what I have missed out on in the last 12 years.”

Exact roles at the Waratahs haven’t been nailed down but Whitaker has filled many roles in Ireland and France, particularly in skills and defence.

He also hopes he can help share his experience in building strong  team culture - which is an essential priority in mixed-nationality French squads.

“I hope so. It is something I have always done anyway,” Whitaker said 

“I am not a ranter and a raver. I am not a screamer. Hopefully I am more a people person than a dictator.

“I think it worked in my benefit over in France. I never got kicked out of a team or sacked. Which is unusual.”

Having once played NSW rugby with the likes of Burke, Lote Tuiqiri, Mat Rogers and Jason Little, Whitaker says he is excited to work with a red-hot Waratahs backline once again.

“We have some massive strike weapons here and this year they managed to get the best out of almost everyone there,” he said.

“When you speak to people up there (in Europe), they love the skill level down here and how quick it is played. They’re quite jealous up there of that. It is mostly set-piece, defensive  footy up there. Some teams play a bit now but you notice the difference when they go to Test level. Coaches say the guys aren’t used to playing at that speed and get blown off the park.”

Plenty of things have changed since the start of the professional era. Photo: Getty  ImagesTaking over the Sydney Rays, who begin their NRC campaign in two weeks, is a great way to get back into the feel of club footy and the Waratahs’ programs.

“There has been some really good rugby played in the NRC and this year we have really streamlined with NSW teams, as far the development and identifcation of talent given there are only  two teams now,” he said.

“Hopefully bringing back the Sydney jumper will also get some tribalism back and get supporters behind it. It is a good opportunity for the guys in Shute Shield to play a level up and play  around some good footy players.”