NSW Waratahs: Analysing the factors that have franchise in dire straits

The Waratahs' roster deterioration can be traced back over the past five seasons to when Jack Dempsey - who recently announced he, too, soon will be out the door - was the only player from the current squad on the books in 2016.

In the years that have followed Daryl Gibson's first season in charge a number of shifting factors have combined to create the firestorm that the Waratahs find themselves in right now - and with no clear timeframe of when they might be able to dig themselves out of it.

The global rugby economy, some poor management and coaching decisions, the COVID-19 pandemic and roster mismanagement have left the Waratahs staring down what may yet turn out to be their worst Super Rugby season ever - but certainly since 2017 when they finished 16th in the second season of the disastrous competition expansion.

Should Gibson have been moved on after that four-win season, when the Waratahs were beaten at home by the Southern Kings? With the power of hindsight, you would have to say yes.

How did a man with a playing group that included Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Ned Haningan, Dean Mumm, Will Skelton, Jack Dempsey, Michael Hooper, Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Israel Folau, Rob Horne and Taqele Naiyaravoro, finish 16th of 18 teams and then not only keep his job, but also earn an extension which he would later walk away from down the track?

All the signs point to mismanagement at an executive level.

The seeds were also sown of a wider roster disintegration that would play out to leave the Waratahs in the predicament they find themselves in now.

While lock Skelton had probably plateaued in his career development, his departure and subsequent rise to become one of the most damaging locks in Europe, should have been raising alarm bells about the state of not just the Waratahs coaching but wider national player management at that time.

And then there was the case of Mack Mason, the young fly-half who was impressive in a rare start against the Crusaders, but was then barely given a chance until he was thrown to the wolves, coincidentally against the Sunwolves, in Newcastle two years later.

Mason was never really given the opportunity to develop and while he experienced issues with injury, his rugby career clearly regressed at the Waratahs and he has been left to pick up the pieces with the Austin Nilgronis in the US Major League Rugby, a competition that we will come back to later.

Gibson's extension, meanwhile, was granted under former Waratahs chief executive Andrew Hore at the start of 2019. Before a game had been played.

It's true, Gibson had overseen a vastly improved 2018 regular season when the Waratahs won nine games and finished on top of the Australian conference. But the devil is in the detail.

Six of the Waratahs' wins in 2018 came in home-away-away fixtures against the Rebels, Reds and Sunwolves, who finished ninth, 13th and 15th. In fact, the only playoff team the Waratahs defeated were the Highlanders, and that victory was made considerably easier by the dismissal of Tevita Nabura following the winger's fly-kick to the face of Cameron Clark.

NSW later went on to defeat the Highlanders in Round 1 of the playoffs, and they even started brightly against the Lions a week later in Johannesburg before being rundown 42-26.

But should that have been enough to earn Gibson an extension for 2020, at the start of 2019? No. There was a clear case to let the season play out when Gibson may well have come to the exact realization he later did, that his time at the Waratahs had run its course.

And the man who will have had a large say in that decision, Andrew Hore, up and left the club in October himself anyway.

As a result, the Waratahs missed out on executing a succession plan for Gibson that now looks like it might prove the greatest misstep of all.

New Zealander Simon Cron had taken charge of Norths' first-grade outfit in 2016, after previously serving the club in a sevens capacity. The following year the Shoremen broke a 41-year Shute Shield drought and then again made the final in 2017.

Cron joined the Waratahs in 2018 and was the natural successor to Gibson, before his fellow Kiwi inked the one-year extension and Cron signed a deal to coach Toyota Verblitz, with Steve Hansen serving as director of rugby, a few months later.

Would Cron have had success at the Waratahs? It's hard to know, but by all reports he was a popular figure among the players and his appointment would surely have had resonated with Shute Shield players on the fringe of Waratahs selection, given what he had achieved with Norths.

And he is clearly making an impact in Japan.

"He's really cutting his teeth over here," Toyota recruit and Wallabies captain Michael Hooper said this week. "I've certainly seen a growth in him since I last was coached by him. Being around Steve and Kieran [Kieran] and bouncing ideas off some of the other coaches up here ... he is only going to improve more and more."

Gibson's decision to leave the Waratahs in June of 2019 left the club with little time to find a replacement. Rob Penney was unveiled in Japan, midway through the World Cup, and was left with just a few months to prepare the team for a February 1 start.

The inability to make too many decisions around the roster given the late stage of his arrival and then trying to implement his playing style after such a short period of prep, were always going to make things tough for Penney and so it proved with his first six games netting just the one win.

Then COVID hit.

There is no need to recap the financial issues everyone involved with Australian rugby has endured, including the Waratahs, and the club has already noted its impact on their recruitment and roster management for 2021. But there was also a push to back the Waratahs' generation next, as alluded to by now departed lock Jed Holloway in an interview with ESPN last month.

Holloway also noted the opportunities on offer not just in Europe and Japan, but also now through Major League Rugby in the United States. Wallabies stars like Adam Ashley-Cooper going over to America is only going to raise the profile of the competition, but it's worth noting that's exactly where the likes of Mason and another former Waratah Cameron Clark have already landed, so too players from Gordon's Shute Shield-winning squad.

That second and third tier of Australian rugby players will only continue to be eaten away at.

The fact that the Waratahs have to go to New Zealand to pluck a veteran lock like Jack Whetton out of the Mitre 10 Cup shows how tight the local resources are in some places, while Tepai Moeroa's switch from rugby league was seemingly made more on his form as a schoolboy with Newington rather than his final couple of years at the Parramatta Eels.

All in all, there are a multitude of factors and decisions over the past few years that have led the Waratahs to the position they are in ahead of Friday night's visit of the Force.

Penney, and the current chief executive Paul Doorn are certainly answerable for the decisions of the past 12 months, but the current imbroglio is in no way completely the domain of their own doing.

Given the way professional sport goes, however, it's likely Penney, at least, will ultimately pay the price should the Waratahs' form continue on its current path.