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Many would argue that it’s much too early in the season for a must-win game. It’s only Week 3, settle down!
But the Waratahs game versus the Rebels at Aami Park is shaping up to be just that. Why? Because it is simply one that the Waratahs cannot afford to lose if they are to achieve their main goal this year.
“We are pretty fixed on wanting to finish the regular season in the top four and we think it is achievable. That’s what we are shooting for,” said coach Darren Coleman last December.
“I am probably making a rod for my own back, but we want to have a genuine crack at this now.”
Those comments came months after a sixth-place finish for the Tahs in 2022. That was a great achievement for them having jumped from the foot of the table the previous year into the mad middle. However, leaping a further two places (or more) this season will be an even bigger challenge.
It would necessitate them overtaking at least two of last year’s top five teams (Blues, Crusaders, Brumbies, Chiefs and Hurricanes) while also keeping the teams behind them at bay.
In practical terms, it means they’ll need to add to last season’s tally of eight wins. Each of last year’s top four teams achieved double digits in wins with the fourth-placed Brumbies notching ten.
Ten victories, perhaps even nine, should be enough to get the Tahs where they want to be in 2023. That translates to a maximum of five losses from 14 starts.
That’s easier said than done. They’ve already stumbled once, in Round 1 against the Brumbies (25-31) in Sydney. A convincing win against the Drua (46-17) in Super Round levelled their won-loss record at 1-1.
They say winning becomes a habit, and nine wins out of their next 12 games is about what Coleman is asking of his charges.
A loss to the Rebels would, simply, be a mortal blow to this ambitious goal. It would send them to Wellington on the ensuing Friday with a 1-2 record.
If they lost again to the Canes then they’d have an uphill battle to even attain last year’s feats let alone better them. A bottom four finish may be a more likely scenario, in this case, than a top four one.
Indeed, it’s early days and still will be – relatively so – one month into the season. But things only get tougher away from home for the Tahs after wet and windy Wellington in Round 4. From mid to late season they’ll also have to travel to play the: Brumbies (Round 6), Blues (Round 9), Reds (Round 11) and Crusaders (Round 14).
That’s a daunting prospect, with each of these likely to be top-half-of-the-table teams at season’s end. If the Tahs can’t trip up the Rebels, can they realistically expect to beat several, let alone any, of those top teams away from sunny Sydney?
I’d suggest not. That’s why the winning habit needs to kick-in this Friday.
The Rebels, for their part, will provide a very stern test. They will be desperate for a victory after a pair of losses, by seven points and six points respectively, to open their season. They seem like a team not far away from their first win.
Melbourne have had the wood on the Tahs in Melbourne over recent years, too, having won two of their last three encounters there.
As always, their matchday 23 will feature a handsome sprinkling of New South Welshmen. The likes of Reece Hodge, Brad Wilkin, Matt Gibbon, Josh Kemeny and Lachie Anderson will, no doubt, dial up the electricity a few extra volts this week to try and get one over their home-state rivals.
It will be a hard graft for the Tahs, but this is the sort of game that good teams win. The Hurricanes are one such team and they found a way to trump these Rebels a week ago.
The depth of the squads suggests an edge for the visitors. Wallaby Tolu Latu and Australia A representative Will Harris have both been left out of Coleman’s 23-man squad for the match.
Without having an ear pressed to Coleman’s office wall it’s also difficult to know whether Nemani Nadolo and Joey Walton are unfit or unable to currently crack the Tahs’ weekly team-sheet.
Having too many quality players to choose from is a good problem for Coleman to have. In the same interview quoted earlier, he alluded to how far the franchise has come in terms of the depth and quality of its personnel.
“It wasn’t that long ago when I took this job people were telling me I had the worst roster in Super Rugby. It’s just over 12 months later and now people are telling me we have too many good players,” he said.
“No look, whether it is rest and rotation or with minor injuries, I am pretty comfortable we have the depth there to ride out the highs and lows.”
It’s a high they’ll want this weekend In Melbourne. To be fair, it’s more of a must than a want if they’re dead-serious about fulfilling their ambitions for the 2023 season.