Don't mention the R-word: Penney says new Tahs won't fall into 're-build' trap

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

They’ve lost as many as 700 Super Rugby caps in a summer but new Waratahs coach Rob Penney said the R word - re-building - is “dangerous” and won’t be used at NSW year.

And the coach says the Waratahs will still regard playing finals rugby in 2020 as a realistic proposition, because to think otherwise would be to admit failure before the team begins.

"You have got to go in believing,” Penney said. "If you don’t have hope, then it’s hopeless.”

Penney fronted media in Sydney on day two of his three-year tenure, and though a little sheepish about the sunburn he incurred at training on day one, the Kiwi was quick to shoot down any suggestions that the Waratahs have entered a 're-building phase’ under his watch.

Even setting aside Penney having taken Daryl Gibson’s whistle, the Waratahs have a distinctly new look about them for the 2020 season, with part-of-the-furniture players like Bernard Foley, Sekope Kepu and Nick Phipps departed, and experienced trio Tolu Latu, Curtis Rona and Will Miller also gone.

The future of Adam Ashley-Cooper remains unclear after he finished a one-year deal, although its believed the 35-year-old and the Waratahs are still talking.

Amid a few senior men and a decent tranche of mid-career players with a few years’ experience, the Waratahs also have a large number of uncapped rookies in the wider squad who’ve come through state and national junior pathways.

Some of the Junior Wallabies graduates, like five-eighth Will Harrison, no.8 Will Harris and winger Mark Nawaqanitawase are likely to be blooded in Super Rugby next season, but Penney isn’t a fan of the “re-building” description. 

"There is enough that have had enough experience to be able to step up and lead this group,” Penney said.

"I think rebuilding can be a dangerous term, you can fall into a bit of a trap when you’re fundamentally trying to make excuses I guess because of what the perceived process is like.

"I’d like to think there is enough there and enough talent within the youth that the combination of that is going to be a very exciting mix.”

Regardless of circumstances, the ever-present public expectation of the Waratahs is to play finals and though Penney said the team had not yet sat down to formalise their “vision and values”, he said being a playoffs contender would be a goal.

"So it’s really important that we use the language and terminology not only around you people (the media) but also around the team,” Penney said.

"This team will have a plan in place, and there will be some expectations as I said that we will deal with over the next couple of months together, to put a vision and values piece together, and winning will be part of that.

“(My) initial impressions are they are a talented bunch. There’s a massive degree of excitement around what the future can look like which is great and there’s a nice blend in the age profiles. There’s some youthful exuberance and some maturity that gives it a lovely balance. 

"It’s very early doors but very, very positive about what the potential is like going forward." 

Covering a range of topics in his opening press conference, Penney said he’d been surprised to see Andrew Hore quit as NSW Rugby CEO just days after hiring him, but said it’d had no impact on him or his plans for the team.

"I was hoping to be able to work with Horey but in saying that he had his own decisions, and things, to make,” he said. 

"And I can’t be complimentary enough for the way the organisation and particularly (general manager) Tim Rapp has supported me and everyone else on the rugby front, and also Roger (Davis) as the chairman, has been unbelievably supportive."

Foley’s departure has left a big hole in the important no.10 ranks but Penney said he would back youngsters Mack Mason, and Harrison, to step up; and that Beale was also an option in the hot seat if the youngest don't aim up.

"We have Will and Mack there who are up-and-coming and we have KB that can fill a hole there,” Penney said.

"So we are pretty relaxed about that situation at the moment. We want to build from within, as we talked about a few months ago, and we want to give those boys our full backing.”

Penney said he was looking forward to working with new Wallabies coach and fellow Kiwi Dave Rennie. The pair have a good understanding about the value of state and national alignment, coming from the New Zealand system. 

"I would have known David for a long time. Hopefully it will be a really positive relationship,” Penney said.

"I am sure he will have the same views coming in that I do. We are trying to do the best thing by players and by Australian rugby, and he is a quality bloke and a quality coach and I am looking forward to finding out his vision for what the top team is going to look like, and how we can support that.

"If we can support each other, it will strengthen us both. I am not a believer in working in silos.

"So, we will be doing everything we can without compromising our own programs and hopefully there can be a real synergy there and we can both feed off each other’s strengths and help each other through those weakness that we identify. And the next World Cup for Australian rugby can be a very exciting time.”