'S**t yeah': Under-siege Tahs coach not baulking at Super challenge

Super Rugby - AU
by Christy Doran

His first year in Australian rugby has been anything but smooth sailing, but the Waratahs' Kiwi coach Rob Penney isn't baulking at the challenge of turning his side's flagging fortunes around.

Penney's Waratahs head into Saturday's clash against the much-improved Queensland Reds at the Sydney Cricket Ground as heavy underdogs. 

It's an unusual position for the Waratahs to be in, given that until last month NSW held an 11-match, seven-year unbeaten streak over their State of Origin rivals.

But despite their narrow 32-26 defeat in the opening round of Super Rugby AU five weeks ago, both sides have gone in opposite directions since.

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Despite the Reds being sunk by an after the siren penalty from Brumbies utility Mack Hansen last Saturday in Canberra to go down 22-20, Brad Thorn's men won high praise for their contribution in what was arguably the game of the Super Rugby AU season.

The Waratahs meanwhile spent last weekend's bye round trying to clear their heads after dishing up their worst performance of the year - a bumbling 29-10 defeat to the the Rebels - a week earlier at the SCG.

The embarrassing defeat - their third from four starts - heaped more pressure on a franchise that continues to under perform.

Penney always faced an uphill battle in 2020.

Having been appointed late last year following Daryl Gibson's sudden resignation, as well as CEO Andrew Hore's soon after, the New Zealander inherited an inexperienced list and had to appoint two new coaches following the departures of Simon Cron (forwards) and Steve Tandy (defence).

But in a results driven industry, expectations remained high that the Waratahs would at the very least compete.

They had, until by the Waratahs' own admission they failed to turn up against the Rebels.

Speaking at his side's team announcement for the Bob Templeton Cup fixture, Penney said the history of the clash meant his side shouldn't have the same issues getting up for the game that they had a fortnight earlier against the Rebels, which came off the back of yet another heartbreaking defeat at the death to the Brumbies.

"We're looking forward to a great battle against the Rebels, traditional foes and what has always been a massive titanic battle between two great sides," Penney said.

"You'd hope that (the) emotion will take care of itself just by the fact of who the opposition are and the great history and traditions of those two groups playing each other."

Penney has made some minor tweaks to his side, welcoming back Test halfback Jake Gordon and midfielder Lalakai Foketi while promising tight-head prop Angus Bell returns via the bench after missing the defeats to the Brumbies and Rebels because of injury.

With the makeshift tournament past the halfway point, the Waratahs have to beat the Reds to have a realistic chance of making the finals.

Asked whether he thought his side could win, an irritated Penney shot back that they approached every game thinking they could win.

"We're trying to win every week," he said.

"I know where you're trying to go with it, but we're trying to win every week. We've been trying to win every week since day one. Nothing changes to that end. You're going to have fluctuations ... blips on occasion, but we're trying to win every week."

It was a rare expression of annoyance in Penney's voice and on his face.

But by no means was it a sign that the New Zealand native was losing the fight.

"S**t yeah," Penney responded, after being asked whether he was still enjoying the role.

"Great group of young men... but in terms of my enjoyment, the boys are fantastic, they're committed, they're working as hard as anybody that I've worked with and they're putting in the hard yards, too, to try and get the outcomes that we all need."

Meanwhile, Penney rejected suggestions Junior Wallabies winger Mark Nawaqanitawase's development had been hindered by being rushed into Super Rugby.

The Waratahs flyer caught the attention of his peers and supporters after his brace of tries on debut against the Crusaders.

But his developing body and suspect defence has seen him exposed in recent months so much so that he's been dropped from the matchday 23 altogether.

But Penney said that the try-scoring winger would bounce back.

"Mark's done really well," Penney said.

"He's trained the house down. No, his timing Super Rugby has been really appropriately managed. He's mature about the situation, obviously he understands the rationale and hopefully he'll be back in the mix very soon."

The Reds take on the Waratahs on Saturday August 8 at the SCG, kicking off at 7:15pm AEST, LIVE on Foxtel, Foxtel Now and Kayo Sports. Buy tickets here. Buy a Kayo Sports subscription here.