Daryl Gibson says there is a “sense of unfulfillment” about the NSW Waratahs’ season as they begin a post-mortem on why they failed to make the Super Rugby finals for the first time since 2013.
As optimistic as the Waratahs tried to be when they arrived back in Sydney from New Zealand on Saturday, they would have hardly been surprised to see the Brumbies easily account for the Force and ultimately put an end to their inconsistent season.
NSW finished with eight wins from 15 games but it could have been far worse after a 2-4 start to the year with early slip-ups to the Brumbies (twice) and the Rebels at home.
“Those moments we’ll dwell on and say we weren’t good enough,” Gibson said. “Our start probably hurt us the most… they were games we needed to get results out of. What I am proud about is how the boys came back from that difficult start and got us back in contention. Finishing off and not making the finals is disappointing and leaves a sense of unfulfilment.”
A total of 10 players made their Waratahs debut, with eight – Bryce Hegarty, Angus Ta’avao, David Horwitz, Reece Robinson, Tom Robertson, Andrew Kellaway, Ned Hanigan and Jim Stewart – sticking around in 2017.
Gibson labelled the newcomers’ transition into Super Rugby “a success” but conceded there would be problems surrounding the departures of senior players Dave Dennis, Wycliff Palu, Kurtley Beale and Benn Robinson.
“If we look at next year’s team, it’s going to be youthful and those players are going to benefit from their introduction this year,” Gibson said. “We’ve got a lot of experience we’re going to lose for a second year in a row, so that has to happen in every team.”
Gibson would not comment on the likely departure of hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, but restated his hope that Dean Mumm would go around for one more year and opt against retiring.
Israel Folau had another exceptional year for NSW, scoring two more tries than any other Super Rugby player (11), as well as finishing second for metres gained (1250) – behind the Force’s Dane Haylett-Petty – fourth on carries (173) and fifth in the competition for offloads (24).
Looking beyond the 34-28 final-game scoreline in Auckland, the Waratahs’ scrum showed just how far it has come since the set-piece was exposed as the team’s Achilles earlier in the year.
The Reds game in Brisbane springs to mind to when the Waratahs were asked to continue to pack scrums because the Queenslanders were so sure they were going to dominate in that area.
That a NSW pack, lead by the ever-improving Paddy Ryan, Polota-Nau and Gibson’s find of the year in Tom Robertson, could orchestrate two penalty tries against a quality a New Zealand unit shows their development.
“We started the season with a scrum under pressure and we got rewarded with two penalty tries which shows our scrum’s really improving,” said captain Michael Hooper. “It’s certainly a bright future for us.”
Said Polota-Nau: “You want to get those young guys really involved and to understand what it takes to be at the top level and I could only do that from the sideline but once I came back there was a kinaesthetic understanding. Paddy Ryan’s transition from tighthead to loosehead, who does that? Credit goes to him and Tom Robertson for preparing and understanding that it’s little minute detail that gets results like that.”
Forwards coach Cam Blades was just as pleased, saying he could see improvements kicking in around the halfway mark of the year.
“The back half of the season, the scrum has been strong and in the last few games we’ve been able to use it as a bit of a weapon,” Blades said. “I’m really happy with the way the guys have developed.”
Regardless of whether Mumm pulls up stumps at the Waratahs, Gibson is in the market for a second-rower, while his back line is largely untouched aside from the departure of Beale.
Asked whether Beale had indicated if he would come back to NSW after his stint with English club Wasps, Gibson said: “There’s been no discussions. He’d be very welcome at the Waratahs. We’re just really keen to see him succeed at Wasps.”