The 2019 Super Rugby season is underway and it's going to be a pivotal one for all the Aussie sides.
RUGBY.com.au is taking a look at each of the Aussies teams ahead of their round one clashes. Today, the Waratahs.
Cameron Clark (Northern Suburbs), Adam Ashley-Cooper (TBC), Kurtley Beale (Eastern Suburbs), Angus Bell (Sydney University), Jack Dempsey (Gordon), Ben Donaldson (Randwick), BJ Edwards (Eastern Suburbs), Damien Fitzpatrick (Eastwood), Lalakai Foketi (Eastern Suburbs), Israel Folau (Sydney University), John Folau (TBC), Bernard Foley (Sydney University), Jake Gordon (Sydney University), Ned Hanigan (Randwick), Will Harris (Eastern Suburbs), Will Harrison (Randwick), Jed Holloway (Southern Districts) Michael Hooper (Manly), Karmichael Hunt (TBC), Harry Johnson-Holmes (Sydney University), Sekope Kepu (Randwick), Tolu Latu (Sydney University), Mack Mason (Eastern Suburbs), Ryan McCauley (Eastern Suburbs), Will Miller (Northern Suburbs), Alex Newsome (Eastern Suburbs), Rory O’Connor (Warringah), Nick Phipps (Sydney University), James Ramm (Randwick), Tom Robertson (Sydney University), Le Roux Roets (TBC), Curtis Rona (TBC), JP Sauni (Parramatta), Mitch Short (Randwick), Rob Simmons (Randwick), Hugh Sinclair (Northern Suburbs), Tom Staniforth (Eastern Suburbs), Rory Suttor (Sydney University), Lachlan Swinton (Sydney University), Patrick Tafa (Northern Suburbs), Chris Talakai (Sydney University), Andrew Tuala (TBC), Shambeckler Vui (Southern Districts), Cody Walker (Eastern Suburbs), Michael Wells (Northern Suburbs), Jeremy Williams (Eastern Suburbs)
The ease with which AAC returned to the Wallabies in Italy last year was a perfect example of why the Tahs have brought back the veteran centre. One of those players who rarely makes a wrong call on a rugby field, and that value can be hugely underestimated. With respect, AAC is old enough to be a coach these days and on-training-field tuition is the most valuable kind for youngsters.
Brad Thorn is perfectly entitled to set his own cultural boundaries to help Queensland but his hard-line stance has also, potentially, given his three Aussie rivals a decent leg-up in terms of experience and depth. Just like Quade Cooper at the Rebels and James Slipper at the Brumbies, Karmichael Hunt has given the Waratahs to take a seasoned - and highly motivated - footballer off the shelf. Hunt could start at 12 or 15, and at a stretch 13, but an impact, 30-minute benchie could be his best role. Arguably Hunt's value will come via that same versatility, where Daryl Gibson will be confident to use him in the starting XV and rest Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau at various points of the season.
Is giant South African import Le Roux Roets more Jacques Potgieter than Hendrik Roodt? His 200cm, 135kg dimensions and abrasive reputation are good but CVs sent across the Indian Ocean don't always match up to reality.
Can John Folau play rugby? He's barely played the 15-man game but five NRL games and a Test for Tonga show he's a footballer, and if he can bring anywhere near the impact of his big bro, it's a decent punt.
Will a pecking order is settled between Jake Gordon and Nick Phipps, or will they keep swapping the no.9 jersey? Phipps' decision to move to London Irish next year may play a part in this debate.
Will Mack Mason finally get some minutes? This is a rising playmaker seen by many as a future Wallaby no.10 but he's only had one Super Rugby start in two seasons (and it was a good one). Needs to be playing at the top level.
Will a stint in the Aussie sevens team turns Michael Wells into more of a ballplayer? Few Tahs work harder, or tackle better, than the no.8 but more time with the ball in sevens should only improve Wells, and potentially catch the eye of Wallabies selectors.
Will a move away from Allianz Stadium hurt or help the Waratahs? The home ground advantage at Moore Park has waned in recent years, and playing games in the west, in Newcastle and at the SCG could unlock a new vibe and a new support.
The blue print
The Tahs scored 81 tries in 2018 and when their big guns are firing - Beale, Folau, Foley - the Tahs can slice up even the best Super Rugby defences. See the first half against the Crusaders, or opening quarter against the Lions in the semi-final.
Folau in the air
it's a Captain Obvious tactic but amazingly teams seem to forget they'd be wise to kick the ball to Israel Folau. The Tahs began to do it with more calculation and regularity last season, and will no doubt continue to look to build into game plans.
With Michael Hooper, Jack Dempsey, Will Miller and Michael Wells, the Waratahs have a light but mobile loose forward rotation, and they want them in the game all night, on both sides of the ball. With Jed Holloway at lock, the combination gives up size but allows for width in attack and quick recycle speed, and gives them good on-ball pressure in defence as well.
The weak link
NSW had a tidy set-piece in 2018 with all their big names on deck but Tom Robertson undergoing a knee reconstruction and Paddy Ryan's retirement has exposed headaches around depth. Along with Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Damian Fitzpatrick, the Tahs now need to rely on youngsters Harry Johnson-Holmes, Cody Walker and Sham Vui to step up. In an already small-ish pack, holding the line at scrum time will the no.1 problem area for NSW.
What they need to win Super Rugby
That star NSW trio - Folau, Beale and Foley - all hit top form and began cutting up rivals with regularity, and not only did this led to an Aussie conference win but an all-important spot in the top two.
All that was only possible, however, because the Waratahs' forwards got tough and punched holes with aggressive carries up front, and produced rock-solid reliability at set-piece time. Crucially, too, the NSW defence got organised and cut down to below 20 points conceded per game.
The key stats
The Waratahs gave up 65 tries in 2018 and acknowledge they must improve in defence to contend in 2019. The stated target is to get the tries conceded tally under 40 for the season, like the Crusaders in 2018 (39).
Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale played almost the entire 2018 season and Daryl Gibson wants to manage the workload of these two playmakers much better so they're not "cooked" by the finals. Karmichael Hunt could be the key here.
Must find a new go-to tryscorer after Taqele Naiyaravoro (15 tries in 2018) departed for England. Folau needs to be the man.
Israel Folau (11)
The headline you won’t see
“Nick Phipps revealed as secret identity of the Sunrise Cash Cow”
2019 Matt Burke Cup winner
If the Waratahs were a Netflix show, they'd be ....
The Crown - the trials and tribulations of a privileged empire, whose popularity with the public rises and falls with each turbulent year.