Magical thinking since Eddie’s arrival but Tahs under no illusions

Australian rugby has taken a collective holiday from reality since the return of Eddie Jones, a good hire but one year too early and arguably on a contract two years too long.

In normal circumstances, the disintegration of the Wallabies coaching team and loss of Dan McKellar, the half-step towards professionalisation of the women’s game (it should be a sprint) and the continued hollowing out of the strategically crucial Queensland to feed a rugby outlier such as Melbourne, would all be matters of concern.

But they have been largely put to one side in favour of magical thinking, best summed up by the theory that Jones’ mere presence – and indeed his “Australianness” – is going to elevate the player base, erasing their flaws and guaranteeing they get the “fair go” they didn’t under Dave Rennie (this theory failed the first test last week as Tate McDermott’s kicking let him down under Jones’ watchful eye).

The Waratahs’ oft-stated “top four” ambitions should be seen in a more lenient light. Coach Darren Coleman offered a convincing case to the Herald about why they had been so public about stating their ambitions, even though it went against his better nature.

There is a case that the Waratahs need to make some noise to get attention in Sydney, and the healthy crowd against the Brumbies last weekend was a good sign.

However, they will have to carry that “top four” label around like a bag of wet cement all season. On the evidence of last weekend, they aren’t a top-four side.

There is a suspicion that their loose forwards have put on too much weight too quickly just as the game has sped up, and by contrast they still aren’t beefy enough in the front row, particularly with Angus Bell gone for the year.

Waratahs head coach Darren Coleman during last week’s loss to the Brumbies.Credit:Getty Images

There is a looming dilemma at No.10, with Tane Edmed looking like he still had not moved on from his poor game against the Chiefs in the quarter-finals last year, and Ben Donaldson’s natural position isn’t No.15. Brilliant youngster Max Jorgensen has already shown what a genuine fullback looks like: pace, genuine acceleration off both feet, the future is very much his but it’s too much to ask that he can be the No.15 in 2023.

The Waratahs will still win games on the back of individuals such as Langi Gleeson, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese: Coleman is right to talk in positive terms about his squad.

But pre-season narratives often lack context and Super Rugby Pacific, as a competition, still operates in two silos, with little recognition of what is happening on either side of the ditch.

In terms of the Waratahs’ top-four ambitions, the apparent improvements at the Hurricanes and the Chiefs are a tangible threat.

The Hurricanes have their best front-row rotation in years, and a number of their young forwards are coming off a title-winning NPC campaign with Wellington, in which they travelled to Christchurch for the final and beat up the Canterbury pack.

There’s a harder edge about them up front this year. They whacked the Reds in Townsville, despite not having their first-choice No.9 (TJ Perenara) and No.10 (Brett Cameron).

Meanwhile, the Chiefs can see the title window is open this year before Brodie Retallick heads to Japan. Ironically, it was their muscularity that convinced the Waratahs to beef up this year, but they can also play an aerobic game.

It won’t be lost on the Waratahs they have to play both those teams in the next month (Hurricanes in Wellington in round four, Chiefs in Sydney in round five). It is part of a tough three-game stretch before the bye that also includes a trip to Canberra for the rematch against the Brumbies.

It’s not an exaggeration to say the Waratahs’ top-four hopes could either be alive or asleep by the end of the second Brumbies game.

The Hurricanes, Chiefs, Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues are all self-evidently contenders for a top-four spot, but which two of that quintet are the Waratahs going to top to satisfy their ambitions? It’s hard to say, particularly with away trips to the Blues and Crusaders later in the season.

Hence, the Waratahs were gutted at losing to the Brumbies last weekend. It was like conceding the classic “14-point try”, and they can’t afford many more of those in the coming weeks.

Watch all the action from the Super Rugby Pacific with every match streaming ad-free, live and on demand on Stan Sport kicking off Friday 17 February.

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