Why Waratahs are charging to Super Rugby finals
May 26, 2014
Greg Growden encourages Ewen McKwnzie to pick Rob Horne as a starting winger against France © Getty Images
The art of good, constructive coaching involves taking risks at the selection table, being prepared to transform players into different identities, showing faith in those who perform, being patient and proactive, as well as recruiting well. Luck is also crucial.
A prime reason why the Waratahs are on top of the Australian conference has to do with their coach Michael Cheika being persistent in wanting his team to pursue an adventurous, and often hazardous, game plan, protecting those who provide the right direction, as well as making some gutsy selection calls. He has also recruited wisely.
Rebels 19-41 Waratahs (Australia only)%]
Cheika is not just entertaining off the field - with television grabs of him during matches the ultimate in showing how a coach goes through an emotional spin-out every minute of a game - but he has also succeeded in making the Waratahs, again, one of the best exponents of running rugby. They are by far the most enjoyable of the Australian teams to watch.
One of the key reasons why the Waratahs have become a genuine tournament threat is that Cheika secured the best signing of the year.
Luring Jacques Potgieter from South Africa was a masterstroke. Potgieter has given the Waratahs forward pack a much needed edge. His persistent charges at the line, excellent ball skills and diligence at the set piece have made him among the most penetrative and effective forwards in the Australian conference.
Jacques Potgieter is hugely influential for the Waratahs © Getty Images
Potgieter, working so well with Michael Hooper, Dave Dennis, Wycliff Palu and Kane Douglas, has constantly ensured the Waratahs are playing with momentum to give the backs the much-needed go-forward ball for them to do something effective.
The fact that Potgieter and Will Skelton have shared their responsibilities and workload has also worked, helping the latter rise to the Wallabies squad. Skelton has been a revelation, but he has also been tutored well by Potgieter. They are a winning combination.
One of Cheika's best selections has been turning Rob Horne into a winger. Horne has had the unluckiest of football careers, constantly shackled by injuries, and he seemed to be stagnating as an outside centre. But his attributes of being a fearless, hard, fast runner who understands space, and who takes a miserly approach to the football when he often refuses to offload it to anyone else, make him perfect for the wing spot.
Horne has shown in recent rounds that he is enjoying his new role, especially when he is helped by fine service from his fellow backs, including Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau and Bernard Foley.
It has been such an impressive transformation that I would not be surprised if Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie picked Horne on the wing for the first Test against France. In fact, this selection should actually be encouraged as it would allow McKenzie to select Ashley-Cooper in his preferred position at outside centre, rather than being shuffled out to the wing. Ashley-Cooper at No.13 would continue a constructive centre-wing combination with Horne that has worked over the past month for the Waratahs. And Ashley-Cooper is a markedly better No 13 than Tevita Kuridrani, who promises a lot but regularly turns into The Invisible Man during the big games.
Force 29-19 Lions (Australia only)%]
So now the Waratahs appear to be Australia's best hope at finals time. The Force, through sheer heart and finely tuned minimalist tactics, continue to hang in there, while the far more talented Brumbies are not out of it.
But it is disconcerting to see the Brumbies relying too much on old tricks - which are starting to fall apart - to the extent that whenever you see an out-of-sorts Jesse Mogg once more aimlessly booting the ball downfield you want to strangle yourself in sheer exasperation. Enough of this tedium!
The Brumbies are dipping at the wrong time, but the Waratahs are lifting at the right moment because the players have been given greater freedom to chance their arm. Their self-confidence has grown, whereas it appears the Brumbies now seem to wonder if they are taking the right course… and it is all getting a bit frazzled.
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