McKenzie insists it'll get better

Greg Growden
Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Waratahs have six spots left to fill in their 2008 players roster, and the make-up of that contingent will either justify or make a mockery of head coach Ewen McKenzie's belief that next season will see NSW return to the right end of the Super 14 ladder.

NSW's miserable season ends tonight when they play the Hurricanes in Wellington, with little hope that they will finish anywhere except second last - easily their worst performance in 11 years of Super rugby.

No matter what happens tonight, the Waratahs cannot lift themselves above any previous Waratahs effort, as before this year they have always achieved at least four victories in a Super 12/14 season.

While the effort of the Waratahs scrum this season has been above average and general forward play acceptable, where NSW have often fallen down has been through inept attack. This season, NSW have fielded one of their least impressive back lines of recent times, and probably the slowest of any in the Super 14.

The recruitment of Parramatta league centre Timana Tahu will make some difference next year, but the emphasis remains on vastly improving an often ponderous back line contingent by recruiting fast, attacking players. They are not exactly plentiful in Australian rugby circles, highlighting the importance of continuing to look for contenders in the league ranks.

McKenzie was yesterday coy about the final six squad members, but he realises how crucial speed is for any team to make an impact in the Super 14.

"We're a fair way down the path on the contract side," he said. "We are fairly comfortable about where we're at. But there are certainly a few areas where we can get some new and exciting changes in direction." It may surprise some, but McKenzie is adamant the Waratahs could boast one of the most formidable squads in the comp next season.

"Our squad next year will be a good one," McKenzie said. "The rest of the competition are all taking key hits with players, with guys heading to Europe. (Except the Force Link.) But our team won't be one of those. Our team will have some consistency.

"We haven't got players who are running away. Players have faith in the ultimate direction in where we are going. Josh Holmes is the only one who has decided to take an opportunity elsewhere. (So where do the six Squad positions become available from? ) Other than that, everyone else is putting their hand up, which is a good sign. And we've been talking to a lot of players. There's always a lot of people knocking on our door. That hasn't dropped off. But it still revolves around making decisions for the right reasons. Recruiting players for the sake of recruiting is dangerous. We have to work out where we need to be stronger, or where we have let ourselves down."

Changes are also certain in the Waratahs coaching set-up. After NSW Rugby Union chairman Arvid Petersen said this week that the Waratahs had made a mistake in not having an attack coach this season, the pressure is on McKenzie to revamp who he has as his back-up.

When asked to describe the season, McKenzie said it was "an aberration." "It has been challenging," he said. "But there have been a lot of good things along the way, especially the attitude of the players. Week in week out, there has been a lot of pressure but the players keep fronting up.

"We know there are plenty of people out there who want to bop you on the nose, but that's life. We haven't had wins, but at least we've been competitive."