Daryl Gibson said the month-long Israel Folau saga has been a undeniable distraction for the Waratahs but the team has been kept in loop about developments given there is still “a lot of love and care” for their "teammate".
Gibson spoke about the impact of Folau’s case as he also named the Waratahs’ team to play the Lions on Sunday morning in Johannesburg.
Michael Wells returns from injury at no.8, and Curtis Rona and Adam Ashley-Cooper have been replaced by Alex Newsome and Lalakai Foketi respectively in the backline. Hooker Tolu Latu also returns on the bench.
Though 10,000km away from Sydney and the endless Folau coverage, the Waratahs have found it hard to not be distracted by events concerning “our teammate", Gibson said.
The Waratahs didn’t seek to shelter players from the news about Folau as he went through his code of conduct hearing and when he was found guilty of a high level breach this week.
Indeed, Gibson revealed NSW Rugby flew general manager Tim Rapp to South Africa to specifically keep players informed of the Folau judicial process and to listen to player's differing views.
"It’s been difficult to not let that be a distraction. It’s around us, it’s a high news story. It’d be naive to say it hasn’t been a distraction. But that doesn’t make an excuse or excuse our performances, which haven’t been good enough,” Gibson said.
"We have been very open and transparent. We have tried to keep our boys updated every step of the way, in what’s going on our with our teammate. There is a still a lot of love and care for Israel in our team. We care for him.
"(Rapp’s updates) have been very helpful. We have been very mature and adult in making sure all our opinions are expressed to him.
"Our team has become a lot closer for it, and we can celebrate the fact that we don’t have to agree or disagree but we are joined in one common purpose and that’s playing for the Waratahs and having a real purpose around the season.
"The boys have done an excellent job of just putting that to the side. We can’t control anything in the future but what we can control is what we do now and I say, we are focussed on the rugby.
"We can never use that as an excuse for our performances. We know that. We want to make sure we are focused on the right things on the rugby field.”
The Waratahs are well aware they need a win over the Lions on Johannesburg, with the Australian conference lead to drift further away without it.
NSW picked up a bonus point in their 28-21 defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria last week - their sixth defeat of the season by eight points or less.
Gibson believes those “tight margins” are a good sign but said there’s no mistaking the need to convert them into wins.
"It is really heartening that we’re very competitive and … there is a lot of fight in the team,” he said.
"We are a team that goes right to the end but we haven’t had the ability to kick on and win those tight contests, which are proving elusive at the moment.”
Ashley-Cooper’s move to the bench is a workload management call, and Foketi has done well off the bench in his limited minutes.
Rona has been in good form but the Waratahs have the benefit of three good wingers.
Prop Sekope Kepu, who announced he’d be leaving for London Irish at the end of the year, is one of the only Wallabies to not have rested yet this year but Gibson said that break would be coming in two or three weeks.
The Tahs plan to shift Tom Robertson to the no.3, further highlighting the prop’s remarkably quick return from a knee reconstruction six months ago.
Robertson played his first game back off the bench last week against the Bulls and instantly steadied a wobbly NSW scrum.
“Somewhere in the next two to three weeks we hope to put Tom across to the tighthead side, and that will allow us the luxury of give Keps a break,” Gibson said.
"He has high minutes, probably more than normal. He’s playing 70-80, which is excellent for a player of his age and he is happy do that for the team.
"Through (Robertson’s) whole rehab process he has been ahead of where he should be, and it’s a credit to our staff and to Tom to be ready so early. It was his first hit of rugby and he did very well and he did very well.
"It is a real positive for him and for Australian rugby. We want to be able to play Tom on both sides of the scrum and I think that gives Australia a chance to look at him there as well."
The Waratahs take on the Lions on Saturday May 11, kicking off at 3:05pm local, 11:05pm AEST, LIVE on FOX SPORTS and Kayo Sports.
Waratahs to take on the Lions
1. Harry Johnson-Holmes
2. Damien Fitzpatrick
3. Sekope Kepu
4. Tom Staniforth
5. Rob Simmons
6. Ned Hanigan
7. Michael Hooper (C)
8. Michael Wells
9. Nick Phipps
10. Bernard Foley (Vc)
11. Alex Newsome
12. Karmichael Hunt
13. Lalakai Foketi
14. Cam Clark
15. Kurtley Beale
16. Tolu Latu
17. Tom Robertson
18. Chris Talakai
19. Hugh Sinclair
20. Will Miller
21. Jake Gordon
22. Adam Ashley-Cooper
23. Curtis Rona