They have three of the best young fly-halves in the country on the books but the Waratahs haven’t ruled out signing an experienced no.10 to fill the gap left by Bernard Foley next season.
Waratahs backs coach Chris Whitaker revealed the possible recruitment strategy as the coaching staff for the two NSW teams in the NRC were named.
Whitaker returns as coach of Sydney, and Sydney Uni coach Robert Taylor has been appointed as coach of the NSW Country Eagles.
Further strengthening the connections with club land, Whitaker will be assisted by Easts coach Pauli Taumoepeau and Taylor will have Randwick’s Ben McCormack as his right-hand man.
With the Rays organisation ceasing involvement, Sydney is now under the roof of NSW Rugby and the Eagles are affiliated with NSW Country Rugby Union.
And mirroring the set-up in Queensland, both Sydney and Country will train out of the Waratahs’ headquarters at Daceyville.
With a brief to use the NRC as a vehicle for development, Whitaker and Taylor have already collaboratively roughed out their respective squads, featuring contracted Waratahs, rising NSW youngsters and a large group of club players.
Scoping out talent capable of stepping up to Super Rugby next year will be among the coaches’ goals, and the performances of three young tens will be heavily scrutinised given the news that Foley is leaving: Mack Mason, Will Harrison and Ben Donaldson.
Harrison and Donaldson were members of the Junior Wallabies this year and are on contract with NSW.
Mason has been Foley’s understudy for several years but only won six caps in that time, and though many assume he is first in line to now step up, Whitaker indicated that may not be a formality.
"There is going to be an opportunity - it’s whoever puts their hand up and takes it,” Whitaker said.
"But all three of them are inexperienced at Super level. Mack has had a couple of games, but at the same time he hasn’t got 50 Super games under his belt either. So I think with all three of them it’s important you put some experience around them as well. And give them the best chance possible to succeed.
"Depending on which direction we go, if we sign someone from outside, or whether we have a crack with the guys we have got, I suppose that’s something we need to work out. To do what’s best for the team, and to bring these young guys through in the right way as well. The 20s obviously had a very successful year and there are some very talented players there.
"But the next job is getting these guys coming into Super Rugby without putting too much pressure on and killing them too early.”
Whitaker said the Waratahs hadn’t finalised their plans around playmakers and the appointment of a new coach would also be a factor in the decision making.
"We are having a look and seeing what’s available, weighing the options. We will start sitting down and talking about selections,” Whitaker said.
"You can either way. What you have to do is if you’re going to give a younger guy a go is put some experienced guys around him as well. It’s about the balance of the team.”
Whitaker is hopeful Kurtley Beale will stay and said negotiations with Karmichael Hunt are ongoing, and he believes NRL recruit Tepai Moeroa will be a “massive signing”.
Whitaker also said he hadn’t contemplated whether he would put his name forward for the head coach role, following Daryl Gibson’s resignation, and said his focus was purely on coaching Sydney.
Only weeks after returning from France, Whitaker was thrown in the deep end last year and coached the new Sydney NRC franchise. They failed to win a game in seven starts.
The changes to the Sydney structure and extra time in the saddle will make a difference, he said.
"Even last year we left notifying the players and selecting the squads very late and by the time we started doing that, a lot of guys weren’t available,” Whitaker said.
"This year it’s very much a development program. We have a good mix of young, up-and-coming guys with the contracted guys here and the standouts in club rugby.
"Already we have been in contact with 30 guys and 15/16 are club rugby players. So obviously having the benefit of the other coaches, Pauli coaches Easts, Rob coaches Uni and Ben coaches Randwick.
"They’re watching club footy every week, since Super has finished I have been at club games every week. We have been staying in contact with a list of guys we are keeping an eye on.
"Everyone is on the same page and doing it for the same reasons. We sat down, the Sydney guys and the Country guys, and came up with the team lists, and had our thoughts on who the standout club players are and where they should be.
“Obviously we are trying to stick to as much as possible having the Country guys playing for country, and Sydney guys with Sydney. It has been a lot more collaborative effort to get the best players on the field and get a good result for everyone playing.”
Sydney and NSW Country will both train out of Waratahs headquarters at Daceyville, and the Eagles will again play all their home games in the bush or in regional centres.
The tournament will begin in late August but a finalised draw has not yet be released.
Taylor, who coached Uni to a premiership last year, said the NRC was a great chance for players and coaches to take the next step in their careers.
"All the (Sydney and NSW Country) coaches understand the primary outcomes and that is for us to all work together for the betterment of the players. It’ll be a bit like club footy where you have first and second grade training against each other. There will be some good intense training and that’s what we want,” Taylor said.
"It gives players another opportunity to go up another level and keeps them playing footy and that’s really positive. There are a lot of good young and emerging rugby players in Australia at the moment and it’s really important that they keep playing and get to mix it with a few senior guys, a few club guys and rivals.
"That’s healthy for their development to learn from guys not from their circle. It also gives a few older guys an opportunity too. The late comers. Club rugby finishes pretty early there is still plenty of time to play footy. The NRC is a great platform."
Taylor said the involvement of active club coaches would be a benefit to identifying and pushing forward the best talent in the Shute Shield.
"I think it is really healthy that the club players know they are being specifically looked at every week, and just through our own club preparation, we look at the opposition in great depth throughout the year,” he said.
"So not only are we trying to improve our players, we are pretty aware of who is doing well in club footy. That’s a good thing for players to know.”