WTF Waratahs: Rugby union’s sleeping giant remains stranded at rock bottom

<span>NSW Waratahs are out of the finals race after a 27-7 defeat to Western Force left them on the bottom of the Super Rugby Pacific ladder.</span><span>Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP</span>
NSW Waratahs are out of the finals race after a 27-7 defeat to Western Force left them on the bottom of the Super Rugby Pacific ladder.Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

“WTF is going on at the Waratahs?”

It has been a painful refrain in Australian rugby circles for far too long and the lament has never been louder than right now. New South Wales, Australia’s biggest rugby province with 150 years of history and a squad studded with Wallabies, is currently sitting rock bottom last on the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific ladder. The dismal 27-7 loss to the Western Force on Saturday dropped the Waratahs to 2-10 this season and snuffed out all finals hopes.

Ten years ago the Waratahs were at an all-time high as 61,823 fans packed Accor Stadium to see Michael Cheika’s side defeat 12-time champions the Crusaders to win the Super Rugby title. It was the crescendo to a season in which home crowds averaged 19,152 at Allianz Stadium. Last week, just 12,562 were at the venue to see the Tahs beaten for a 13th consecutive time by ACT Brumbies.

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Ever since 2014, the sky blue jersey sporting the blood red protea, has been in flux. The Waratahs have made the Super Rugby semi-finals only twice in 10 seasons, a dismal showing for a state union that supplies over 58% of Australia’s playing stocks and spectators. As on-field success has dwindled so have crowds, sponsorship, TV viewers and public interest. Now, even the Waratahs players seem to be losing faith.

The Tahs’ sole try-scorer in Saturday’s debacle – in which they conceded 27 unanswered points and coughed up 18 turnovers in another error-riddled showing – was Mark Nawaqanitawase, arguably Australia’s best player in the chaotic 2023 season. Yet it was the winger’s first try in 13 weeks, and after two more rounds he will defect to the NRL for the 2025 season.

Nawaqanitawase isn’t the only one leaving the sinking ship. Even Waratahs captain Jake Gordon, who played his 100th game in sky blue this weekend, wants out. Rugby Australia have rejected Gordon’s bid to head overseas so he is, for now, stuck in no man’s land. Long-time stalwarts Ned Hanigan and Will Harrison have been luckier, sneaking under the wire to take up contracts in France and Japan respectively.

In any losing season, the buck ends with the coach. Darren Coleman is a popular figure with both fans and players, having won titles at Shute Shield and NRC level. After a winless season of 13 straight defeats in 2021 – a historic Australian low since professionalism started in 1996 – the amiable ex-leaguie began an admirable knock down-rebuild, lifting the Tahs to a respectable finish of sixth in both 2022 and 2023.

But 2024 has been a disaster from day one. The Waratahs lost four of their first five games by seven points or less. They beat the Crusaders in early April but haven’t looked like winning since. The injury toll has been awful, with 16 frontline players injured, 13 of them scrubbed for the season, including all 10 contracted frontrowers.

While ill-luck and on-field results have dominated headlines, plenty of rugby fans are pointing fingers at the powerbrokers at the Waratahs’ Daceyville HQ. CEO Paul Doorn pledged NSW as the first member union committed to RA’s centralisation “reset” in 2024, leaving RA to run the Waratahs’ high performance (staff, players, coaches) and commercial operations (sponsors, marketing, ticketing, membership).

Yet despite his 16% win record in 2024, Coleman was shown a latitude RA didn’t afford Wallabies coach Dave Rennie (38%) in sacking him to install Eddie Jones. When the Tahs dropped five or their first six games, a review was launched. But despite losing five of the next six, RA didn’t pull the trigger until this week, when they announced Coleman’s contract would not be renewed. The search for a new coach has begun, with Cheika – a free agent after finishing up as head coach of Argentina – believed to be the prime target.

Axing Coleman and going back to the future with Cheika may not fix much in the wider scheme anyway. The Waratahs have gone from a $3.5m profit in 2021 to posting a $4.8m deficit for 2023. Their move to new facilities at Daceyville has not delivered the elite success it promised on- or off-field, and the return to Allianz 2.0 hasn’t caused a ripple in the ultra-competitive Sydney sports landscape, with the Waratahs biggest crowd this year just 13,533.

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Plenty saw the writing on the wall. In January, when Guardian Australia asked Doorn how 2024 memberships were tracking, he admitted they stood at “less than 4,000”. That lack of faith has borne out, with the Queensland Reds clash on 31 May now their last shot at salvaging respect. For inspiration they might look to the Waratahs women who won the 2024 Super Rugby W title, with 13 of the side selected in the Wallaroos’ side for the Pacific Four series.

RA desperately need the Wallabies to restore their reputation on the world stage before the British & Lions tour in 2025 and a home World Cup in 2027. With new coach Joe Schmidt weighing up his squad for Tests against Wales and Georgia in July, and the Rugby Championship over spring, the Waratahs’ woes become a national concern.