Waratahs vs Highlanders: Five things we learned

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

Missing five of their best players, the Waratahs were blown off the park in Invercargill and not just by the weather.

What are we talking about after NSW's season came to a sour end?

Resting policy all wrong

Daryl Gibson rolled the dice on the Wallabies’ resting policy and he came up snake eyes as far as the finals went.

But that was a soft consequence.

The real price was paid in Invercargill.

The Waratahs were pumped. Rivets popped everywhere.

Yes, there was a admirable fightback in the second half but it’s no refuge when you ship 42 points in the first.

This was a defeat that soured a season and will leave a bad taste until February next year.

And Gibson’s tactics regarding the resting of his Wallabies played a big role - they can’t escape scrutiny.

Taking the five best players out of NSW’s team not only reduced the quality by a very large degree, it also blew up any sense of connection and cohesiveness.

The Waratahs looked like a mob who’d never played together and that’s pretty much because they’ve never played together.

The all-important trust required in a defensive line, forged with time spent together on the battlefield, was sorely missing.

On a night where field position and pressure was always going to be crucial, the Waratahs’ kicking game was poor without it’s two primary kickers - Foley and Beale.

Perhaps the biggest problem was the absence of cool, calm and collected leadership.

When things went wrong - and that was within minutes - there were too few experienced NSW men out on the deck, leading the way and keeping things on track.

Those who Gibson hoped would stand up in that space, did not.

The temptation to stack a team and try and make the finals was fool’s gold for Gibson.

It was always going to create a game where five key leaders were missing, whether it be a dead rubber or - if the tactic had have worked - a last-round banana skin that would have damaged finals momentum anyway.

The strategy opened the door for a defeat that had the potential to majorly damage the Waratahs.

And so it unfolded.

Lack of forward progress

Compouding the problems of missing a third of your team was the fact that a game in Invercargill exposed the chinks in the Waratahs’ game in 2019.

Namely, a good kicking game and a lack of muscle in the middle.

To beat the Highlanders anywhere you need to win the battle up front but when you’re playing in Invercargill, double it.

With Antarctica next stop on the map, the south tip of the South Island is cold and wet and slippery. And cold.

To win there you have to carry hard and win the contact, win the breakdown and then carry hard some more.

Then you kick it long.

It’s not a place where backlines seeking to attack in wide tend to thrive.

But as they’ve sought to do all year, the Waratahs’ strategy in the opening half was to move wide behind the advantage line, and they duly went backwards on the field and on the scoreboard.

They played more direct in the second half but still didn’t get the Highlanders backpeddling.

The NSW kicking game was also poor and couldn’t build pressure either.

Alex Newsome tried hard but his kicking game at fullback was, unsurprisingly, rusty.

Mack Mason’s general kicking was non-existent and his kick-offs went too long twice.

By way of contrast, Aaron Smith ran a masterclass at halfback with the boot and getting his forwards over the mainline.

Foley or not to Foley

Bernard Foley is weighing up his future with the Waratahs and may or may not be with the club next year.

Either way, a lot more needs to be done about developing alternative options at the Waratahs as far as playmakers go.

Mack Mason was asked to step into a tough situation and while started to look comfortable in the last 20 minutes - and scored a try - his lack of impact in first 60 minutes can’t be ignored.

It can’t all be sheeted home to Mason, either.

The guy has barely played this year so it’s understandable it takes him a bit of time to re-find touch.

Mason was once the up-and-coming fly-half in the Aussie junior system, and he came to learn at the heels of Foley.

But all he has done is watch, mostly, as Gibson has opted to stick with his Wallaby star to win games.

That short-termism creates problems when Foley can’t play. There is a noticeable drop-off in the entire Waratahs’ game.

How can that be remedied? It must start with more planned minutes for Mason, and in time, Will Harrison.

Mason has started twice and only come off the bench another two times in 2019.

If the Waratahs believe he is Foley's long-term solution, that has to change.

Good innings

Nick Phipps has always been a polarising player among fans but there is one place you won’t find divided opinion: the NSW change room.

Phipps played in his 133rd and last Super Rugby in Invercargill and it’s fair to say he has busted a gut in every single one of those games.

There are very few players in Australia who give more of themselves than Phipps and that’s why players universally rate him as one of their most valued teammates.

Phipps started at the Rebels but returned home and was the starting no.9 for the Waratahs when they won the club’s only Super Rugby title in 2014, and for that he’ll hold a deserved spot in the club’s history books.

Phipps is heading to London Irish next year and with him will be Kepu and Curtis Rona.

Much has been said about Kepu but Rona deserves a shout-out, too.

His form in the second of the 2019 season has been outstanding and it’s a shame Australian rugby is losing the ex-NRL star just when Rona has started to look right at home in rugby.

Waratah finds

The Waratahs’ post-mortems will be conducted in coming months, and many of the big-name players will get busy focussing on a World Cup campaign.

A snapshot of their season will no doubt identify some big names who didn’t produce consistent form, but it will also highlight the emergence of some new talent.

Lachie Swinton shone in the backrow and so too did Harry Johnson-Holmes in the front row.

In his first full season starting, HJH was immense and both his scrummaging and open-field play was well above what many expected.

Karmichael Hunt proved to be a valuable addition in the midfield, and there were decent efforts from wingers Alex Newsome and Cam Clark.