Coleman must revert back to recipe of 2022 for finals success

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In 2022 the Waratahs were the Australian team to follow, a team with true underdog status playing some great footy.

But throughout the 2023 season they have struggled to capture their fans with both a poor win record and a clunky style of play. This comes down to a gameplan which is in its infancy and rushed changes in personal with under cooked cattle.

Last weekend, head coach Darren Coleman finally got his backrow balance right. You could see shadows of the elusive 2022 form in their win over the Queensland Reds in Townsville.

The game was a classic, with a bit of mongrel and biffo about it, interestingly Coleman was most pleased with the ‘pace’ of his team’s game.

“I thought it was more of our ad lib stuff that was good, I wouldn’t have thought our multi-phase connection and breakdown early was ordinary,” a relieved Coleman said.

“We’ve had a real focus just around moving quicker, I find if we can move quicker, we’re in position better and can see the opportunities better.”

It can be dressed up anyway you like but the fact is Coleman’s plan to beef up his players to play a more combative style of rugby hasn’t worked.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

I don’t want to be short sighted about it, change takes time and perhaps next season, the likes of Lachie Swinton, Will Harris and Charlie Gamble will be able to grab the headlines again with their new frames. However, presently they are among the less impressive players in the team and the Waratahs are having a less impressive season than 2022.

The speed of players arriving in support either in open play to receive an offload or to secure an attacking breakdown was evident at the weekend. Only Fraser McReight beat the Tahs’ pack to the breakdown consistently and he was in a league of his own at the pilfer.

The Waratahs’ success and fluidity comes down to individual players and their skillset. Taleni Seu has been the most consistent and impressive Waratahs’ forward at 202cm and 117kg. He knows how to use his mass to greatest effect in contact and is naturally quick, giving him power in the tackle and when clearing out a ruck.

Pairing him with a workhorse like Michael Hooper who is world class at skulduggery at the breakdown creates absolute chaos for the opposition. Having a powerhouse like Langi Gleeson at number eight gives the back five the bulk and speed needed to play on the front-foot, regardless of whether it is off a kick-off or phase play.

(Photo by Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images for Bursty PR)

On the other hand, players such as Harris and Gamble gained the most bulk in the off season, and it has visibly slowed them. Harris, 22, has gone from 109kg to 116kg and stands at 194cm, and Gamble is also visibly carrying his extra 5kg. in 2022 Gamble was the forward find of the season behind Gleeson, but has fallen away in 2023.

While Seu is naturally a big specimen, and Gleeson has remarkable speed which allows him to rush-up and put shots on in defence, Harris, Gamble and Swinton are unable to utilise their new bulk to maximal effect. This discrepancy is hampering the style of rugby which lead the Tahs to success in 2022, a quick and skilful gameplan compared to Coleman’s envisioned smash and crash style at the start of the season.

With Seu and Gleeson on the field a hybrid between the two styles can be achieved but once those replacements roll on the team loses impetus.

The point of juxtaposing these two pairs of players is to illustrate that some players carry extra weight better than others and that if Coleman wants speed, he must pick the athletes who have it.

The Waratahs have an easier run than some to finals footy and while they lack some punch in the front row the rest of their pack with Jed Holloway, Ned Hanigan, Hugh Sinclair and the backrow of Seu, Hooper and Gleeson can lay a strong platform for their backs.

The Waratahs backline has the form inside centre in Australia and one of the most damaging outside centres in the competition. A centre-pairing backed-up by a formidable and hard working back three completes a backline with immense strike power. Halves pairing Ben Donaldson and Jake Gordon have been far from impressive and need to find a way to get their game changers into the contest.

Whilst Gleeson continues to work on a 80 minute performance to truly challenge incumbent Rob Valetini for the Wallabies spot, Harris will need to step-up and bring power to his game in Seu’s absence due to injury.

Bigger bodies have allowed the Tahs to repel some of the competition’s best attacks but it has meant they have been unable to score points and truly challenge the top-end sides.

If Coleman and his men are to make a serious run at finals, he must bite the bullet and concede his vision of 2023: a combative game plan and bulked-up players are under cooked and in a prototype stage, which could be complete in 2024. It is evident a skill-based, fast paced game plan will serve his talented side better coming into finals, as was the case in 2022.

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