‘What the hell’s going on’: Ex-Wallabies question ‘losing’ culture, pathways at Waratahs


Amid questions of a “mistake-making” culture where losing has become acceptable at the Waratahs, former Wallabies Cameron Shepherd and Stephen Hoiles have questioned the rugby pathways in NSW.

After three successive defeats of three points or less, the Waratahs suffered their fourth straight loss last weekend as they went down to the Rebels 27-21 last Friday night.

Head coach Darren Coleman described the defeat as the Waratahs’ worst since he took over in 2022, as the home side blew countless opportunities and were scrummed off the park in the absence of Angus Bell.

The forgettable evening started early, with winger Dylan Pietsch blowing an early try after failing to draw and pass to his inside teammates Mahe Vailanu and Jake Gordon and instead backing himself to outsprint Carter Gordon.

It backfired, with the Australia A winger, who previously starred for the national sevens team, being tackled around the legs and throwing the ball forward in an attempt to rectify his decision.

CARTER HAS ‘EM COVERED! ????#SuperRugbyPacific #WARvREB pic.twitter.com/qHmcJj0ZLw

— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) March 29, 2024

Shepherd, who featured prominently in the back three for the Waratahs and Western Force and appeared at the 2007 World Cup, said he was left most disappointed by the lack of accountability following the blown try.

“Is there a culture that mistake-making and losing is acceptable?” he said on Stan Sport’s Between Two Posts podcast.

“You saw Dylan Piestch run down the sideline, two or three guys are marked inside, [he] should have drawn and passed and Jake Gordon runs in toscore.

“Izaia Perese would have been back after beating, what, five people to set that try up [and] wondering ‘what the hell’s going on?’ That should have been a try.

“Yet, they’re giving him high-fives and giving him bum-pats when he’s running back.

“He should have been led out to the car park and put in a car and sent home.”

Dylan Pietsch and Max Jorgensen look dejected after going down to the Melbourne Rebels at Allianz Stadium on March 29 in Sydney. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

After three late team withdrawals, the blown chance set the tone for the disappointing result.

They weren’t helped by being on the end of a 18-4 penalty count during a match where there was 37 turnovers.

Hoiles, who featured prominently in the Waratahs’ only Super Rugby success in 2014 under Cheika after previously playing at the club in between a stint at the Brumbies, said the moment highlighted the lack of smarts in Australian rugby currently.

“I’ve coached ‘Peachie’ and I’ve watched him… He’s got so much confidence and ability, but he’s just got to slow down at times because he made the initial break,” Hoiles said.

“One of the challenges I had when I was coaching was he wants to go to fifth gear all the time and sometimes you’re better off when you’re that fast.  

“You [Shepherd] in fourth gear would make a better decision.

“Finishers like that, you don’t always have to be flying down the sideline. He did the hard work, he made the break and then it was about slow down and finish it and give it to someone else, but you can’t do that when you’re running ten metres a second.  It’s not easy to make an accurate decision and an accurate pass.”

Hoiles said the fear of failure at the Waratahs was once again hurting the franchise.

“I reckon there’s a bit of a fear,” he said.

“I’ve seen this at the Tahs many times over the years, I reckon there’s a fear of failing as opposed to a passion to win. That might sound like just a load of crap, but they fear losing rather than they have this dead-set passion to go out and win.”

Asked if that was down to public pressure, Hoiles said it played a part.

“Sydney’s always been hard, mate,” he said.

“We’ve been there. You turn up, you’re meant to win at the start of the year.

“There is something about that club, that’s why they’ve only won one [title] and that was the great job Michael Cheika did that year was taking the pressure off the players and putting it on himself.

“When there’s that many errors happening in a game, this is the first time this year I sat back and said, ‘oh, it’s not all that good at the Tahs.’”  

The Waratahs’ season is on the line ahead of their clash against the Brumbies in Canberra. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Many of the penalties were the result of the Rebels’ dominant scrum, as Kevin Foote’s side made the most of the Waratahs down in resources in the front-row.

Missing four of their seven contracted props, Coleman threw rising Junior Wallabies talent Jack Barrett in to start in what was his Super Rugby debut.

But the 19-year-old was withdrawn in the 21st minute, with recruit Hayden Thompson-Stringer brought in to try and steady the ship.

Although the experienced front-rower was effective around the park, he too struggled at the set-piece with Taniela Tupou dominating once he came on in the second half.

While the panel believed Barrett was a player on the rise, Shepherd questioned why a teenager, who had yet to start in a senior match, was called up to pack down against one of Australia’s best packs.

“Is that a result of our development pathway where we’re identifying these kids at 14 years of age, putting them in Gen Blue, which it’s called in Sydney, avoiding their involvement in Shute Shield and developing them in the gym and on the training park more than on the field?” he said.

“That’s the pathway that we seem to be selecting out of.

“Instead, why aren’t the top 10 front rowers in New South Wales or every state listed, and then analysed, and then brought in.”

Jack Barrett tries to dent the Rebels’ line on debut against the Rebels at Allianz Stadium on March 29, 2024 in Sydney. (Photo by Pete Dovgan/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Hoiles said the pressures of keeping young talent meant players were often thrown in prematurely.

Crucially, the second-year Randwick coach added that that line of thinking had meant plenty of players in the Shute Shield and other club competitions had hung up the boots earlier than in the past because they knew they wouldn’t get a call-up to higher honours.

“The problem with this model of these young guys getting opportunities is the 24 or 25-year-old will see it on the weekend in club footy and go, ‘This is my last year’,” he said.

“As opposed to going, I’ll hang in there, I’ll play until 30, I’ll play 200 games. They go, I’m going overseas or I’m done.

“Club footy across Australia is a lot younger because professional rugby getting younger.”

Hoiles added that forwards typically developed later than backs.

“Not many forwards are ready to go [at 20] but they’re getting judged at a young age and some of our best are playing Shute Shield between the age of 21 and 25 and they’re going, ‘I’m now ready. You didn’t think I was ready four years ago? I wasn’t. But I’m ready now.’

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