Pressure Points: Coleman’s crunch time as centralisation and building of identity looms large at Waratahs
It is a strange time to be a Waratahs fan as Darren Coleman enters his third year at the helm. Two quarter final appearances that have shown promise, a merger with Rugby Australia on the cards to take effect from January 1st, and arguably one of the greatest players to ever don the jersey, Michael Hooper, departing.
2023 was a year the Tahs came crashing back to earth, and it was no further encapsulated than their humiliating home loss to Moana Pasifika, followed by a forty point drubbing by the Blues the following week. It was a side limping to the finish line, managing to equal the efforts of the year before, albeit far from convincingly.
It seemed totally at odds with when Darren Coleman’s appointment was announced. The bloke is a stalwart of local rugby, a legend of the Shute Shield that coached Gordon and Warringah to drought breaking premierships. He’d taken NSW Country to the 2016 NRC Grand Final, he’d gone overseas and won a premiership in Major League Rugby.
In the years following their maiden title in 2014, both on the field as a team and off the field as a brand, the Waratahs felt like they’d sat in a state of arrested development, struggling to craft its own identity and rugby brand. Local fans, uninspired by poor performances, had taken their passion for rugby to the likes of the Shute Shield and equivalent competitions.
Surely, if there was any man to bring the Waratahs back and give them not just a competitive edge they clearly needed, but deliver an identity as authentically NSW, it was Coleman. How had it gone wrong with this coach?
In truth, like for his team, 2023 was a serious wake up call for Coleman, as he discovered how treacherous a competition Super Rugby is, and that his own priorities proved his own undoing.
Coleman’s strength isn’t just in the belief he instills in players, it is who he can bring on board to guide that belief. Many players would come to Shute Shield clubs simply because he was there, even his 2021 LA Giltinis Grand Final winners had eleven of the starting fifteen originate from Australia: including the likes of current Waratah incumbent Mahe Vailanu and former Tah, now Brumbies scrum-half Harrison Goddard.
These strengths were on full display throughout his debut season. It felt like the Tahs were moving again, playing with a calm confidence and grounded approach reflected in their coach.
Two wins on the road in New Zealand, dramatically improved performances against heavyweights the Hurricanes, Blues and Brumbies, and strong wins against the Crusaders in front of a packed Leichhardt Oval: it felt like the Tahs had finally returned to their roots. They finished the regular season with an 8-6 record, the first time they’d won more than they’d lost since 2018.
It gave fans good reason to see improvement the following season, and to give a side a restored sense of local pride in one short year was no mean feat.
Hoping to ride that success, Coleman aimed to build on that structure but with a heightened sense of physicality. Players bulked up in pre-season, building strength. However, this focus came with one clear flaw: moving your tactics with the times. With the second year comes a chance for teams to develop counteractive plans, having had the chance to play against you.
However, this focus of physicality could paper over tactical predictability, as long as it could be maintained for the full game. This put pressure on the Tah’s depth, which had been exposed and stretched to breaking point for the last few years. It wasn’t just the starting side that had to match up physically, but the reserves, and the extended squad.
A team like the Crusaders may pick up as many injuries as any other team, yet their squad is still able to win and blitz finals because their depth is that good. Despite their improvements, depth issues exposed in Penney’s era have not departed. Depth like this, the Tahs did not have.
In short, Coleman became so focused on getting the boys up for the rugby that he forgot about the rugby itself. It was an approach that quickly unraveled twenty minutes into the opening game of the season, as Angus Bell limped off.
With Tom Lambert exposed against a Wallaby front three at the Brumbies, momentum at set piece was stifled. While the Waratahs were able to keep up physicality in general play, the Brumbies shift to tactics, chipping away with field dominance and penalty goals saw them sneak home. It proved to be a blueprint to defeat Coleman.
The Waratahs went on to lose five of their first six matches, desperately trying to correct their game plan and an effectively botched pre-season. Up until their round five 14-24 loss to the Chiefs, performances seemed so uninspired fans began to draw comparison to the seemingly rudderless rugby that plagued Penney’s leadership.
While they would eventually recover to scrape into finals, they finished second last for the whole competition in clean breaks (67), carries (1,579), metres gained (5,637), and last overall in total defenders beaten (259). Simply put, they were any easy team to read and defend, and they struggled to get past most sides.
It was a disappointing sight, after a year of promise, to see the Tahs (like most Australian sides) return to a situation where they could only beat someone on their day, once in a sky-blue moon.
If there is one thing Coleman is good that though based on his career up until now, it is bouncing back from failure. It proved the case when he was undone tactically in the 2016 NRC Grand Final, a result he admitted proved invaluable when he won Warringah their first Shute Shield the following year.
He also accepts accountability candidly, and in many interviews heading into the latter half of the 2023 season openly admitted he got many parts of 2023 wrong. With failures comes opportunity for growth, and sometimes you need a serious wake up call so you can be better for it down the road.
The challenge though, is ensuring that the errors made in 2023 are not repeated. Coleman cannot afford to tactically rest on his laurels again, the Tahs need to play rugby that asks questions of the opposition, combined with that level headedness his teams are known for.
The depth issues still persist, and the Tahs have looked to try and rectify them with crucial signings in the front row in the form of Hayden Thompson-Stringer from La Rochelle and Tom Ross from the Brumbies, as well as Miles Amatosero in the locks combined with Fergus Lee-Warner and Ned Slack-Smith to fill the Michael Hooper-sized hole.
Some of the depth experiments over Coleman’s tenure have proved successful, and he’ll be trusting on the maturity shown by Tane Edmed at flyhalf, supported by a hopefully fit again Will Harrison.
If one positive did come out of 2023, it was how efficient and versatile the Waratahs backline showed itself to be, with Jake Gordon now set to be supported by exciting scrum half Jack Grant, Wallabies Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese alongside strong replacements in Joey Walton and Mosese Tuipulotu, and a very exciting back three with Max Jorgenson firmly ensconced at fullback. Not bad considering last year he was expected to barely get any game time behind Kurtley Beale!
Should these weaknesses be effectively addressed, his strengths as a coach will be heightened, as will the Tahs chances of going much further into the competition.
If the same issues persist though, it could prove to be more significant than just another disappointing season.
RA have a vested interest in the Tahs now, using them as an opportunity to put their plans of centralisation into practise. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but progress needs to happen in some form or another, either on the field and/or off it, as other franchises will be looking at the Waratahs and what management under the RA roof looks like.
To not address the depth issues, tactical missteps and not see progression in 2024 could be fatal for Coleman’s time at the Tahs.
The Tahs, under him, have arguably come the closest in the best part of a decade to not just performing, but reinvigorating fans with a brand and style of rugby that feels unique to the sky blue state.
If the Tahs strive to be a true representation of NSW Rugby, it almost seems poetic that Coleman is a reflection of it, either as a state that progresses, or a state of arrested development.