A funny thing happened on the way to the Rugby World Cup in September: Wallaby legs rediscovered their bounce.
What’s behind the extraordinary spring in the step we are now witnessing? It can’t all be attributable to the Return of the King – although more on Eddie Jones’ homecoming a little later.
No, the explanation is far more earthy. The Tahs are back!
It is a little-known fact that the overall mood of Australian rugby is dictated by the performances of New South Wales. That’s where almost all the big decisions in the game are made – for better or worse – and the Waratahs set the tone. When the Tahs play badly, it sends spirits into a funk, regardless of how well the Brumbies, Reds, Force and Rebels might be faring. The downbeat mood in Sydney is interpreted as a nationwide malaise. What do you mean things are different in Canberra and Brisbane?
But when the Waratahs are winning, all is well with the world. True, it is advisable not to fixate too closely on the results of the last half-decade. Anyone can have five “off” years. No, the important thing is to concentrate on the here and now – and right here, right now, the NSW side is looking extremely powerful.
This optimism will be put to the test on Friday night when the Tahs take on the Brumbies, the Australian champions, at NSW’s shiny new home of Allianz Stadium. Playing the Brumbies in Sydney is applying the acid right from the get-go. In an ideal world, the Waratahs would have travelled to the national capital. There, they would have had a free swing: come up short and, well, it’s just the Canberra Curse.
Darren Coleman and Waratahs players at the club’s new high-performance HQ.Credit:Kate Geraghty
But playing at home, in front of a possible 30,000 crowd, there is no wriggle room. Which is precisely how Darren Coleman wants it. He wasn’t kidding when he said he might be making a rod for his own back by talking up his side’s chances, but he is a truth-teller – and the truth is that the Waratahs have depth everywhere from the front row to the back three.
Even Michael Hooper is energised and again putting his hand up to lead the Wallabies. Whether Jones goes down that path or strikes out in a new direction remains to be seen, but it was wonderful to hear Hooper talking in such a positive fashion earlier this week.
It is all happening, too, for fellow back-rower Langi Gleeson. Capped as a Wallaby before getting any meaningful time in Super Rugby, Gleeson will want to hit the ground running. Hopefully, though, he will realise how lucky he is just to be playing.
His first contribution to the Narrabri trial a fortnight ago was to upend Queensland No.8 Harry Wilson, who landed on his head. In the absence of a TMO, Gleeson was given only 10 minutes in the bin. When Filipo Daugunu did precisely the same thing in a pre-season trial, he got five weeks. Please make the most of your escape, Mr Gleeson.
Waratahs fans will venture forth warily. They have been burned many, many times before and will need convincing. As one reader put it on Tuesday in response to Georgina Robinson’s story about Coleman wanting to turn Allianz Stadium into a Fortress of Fear, “Walk the talk and I’ll be there.”
Jones will be there, too, assessing two of the great powerhouses of Australian rugby. If it emerges that one of the teams dominates this year, it will make his planned “smash-and-grab” raid on the World Cup a tad easier. It’s always helpful if one team supplies the bulk of the Test side.
But that doesn’t look like happening this year. The Tahs are strong, the Brumbies are strong. And it may well be that if the Taniela Tupou-deprived Queensland set pieces hold up, starting with the Hurricanes in a steamy Townsville on Saturday night, it could be the Reds who complicate matters with their slick offloading game.
So, a potential three-way blend looms, with Izack Rodda, Trevor Leota, Andrew Kellaway and Reece Hodge thrown in. And if there is to be a one-off bolter, allow me to venture one name without comment: Tom Lynagh, who is starting the year as Queensland’s third-string five-eighth.
There are any number of reasons Australian rugby has a spring in its step at present: the Wallabies coaching switch from passive to active, the possibility of the game emerging with a future-proofing fund of between $150-$200 million from the 2027 World Cup, fair payment at last for the Wallaroos, a world-class training centre about to come online at Ballymore…
But for the buoyant mood to be maintained, the Waratahs must walk the talk. They don’t necessarily have to win. But they do have to show up.
Watch all the action from the Six Nations with every match streaming ad-free, live and exclusive on Stan Sport. Round 3 returns Sunday 26 February, with Italy v Ireland (1:05am AEDT), Wales v England (3:35am AEDT) and France v Scotland (1:50am AEDT).
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