THE auditions have started. The Waratahs' first week back at the office has involved fitness testing, conditioning and one-on-one pow-wows with new coach Michael Cheika.
Today the squad takes on the Coogee stairs, a vomit-inducing run up 210 steps at the southern end of the eastern suburbs beach, in the next instalment of his pre-season fact-finding agenda. Who's fit, who's not, who puts in.
''I think he's putting out a challenge,'' Tahs' club captain Pat McCutcheon said. ''He's going to challenge the players to go beyond their usual [routine] and whether they accept that. I'm sure they will accept it because if they don't they'll be spat out the back.''
McCutcheon will be spared the stairs session today as he continues rehabilitation for a dislocated left ankle that ended his season before it really got started in early March.
The back-rower completed his first run since the injury yesterday and hopes to join the squad's regular sessions in early to mid-December.
That could be about the same time some serious competition arrives in the form of new recruit Michael Hooper, who will join the province after the Wallabies' end-of-year tour. McCutcheon said he was looking forward to meeting his new teammate but was undaunted by the hype surrounding the former Brumbies No.7.
''I don't think it changes too much to be honest, even when Chris Alcock was there and before that with Phil Waugh, there was always a challenge to be a better player,'' he said. ''A player like Michael who's doing so well and is playing at Test level, it's healthy within the club to have that competition. But if I can be in similar shape to where I was at the beginning of last season then I think I'll be in a good position.''
McCutcheon has spent seven months working hard on rehabilitation but the 25-year-old is deserving of some good fortune after two seasons disrupted by an ankle injury, the calf tear that preceded it and a slipped disc before that.
''I thought [this year] year would be an opportunity to have a breakout season and stamp some authority on [the position] and make it mine, but unfortunately that isn't always the case,'' McCutcheon said. ''A season without injury is something I'm really looking forward to.''
Halfback Brendan McKibbin will be running the south Coogee stairs today and will be doing everything he can to prove his passion and work ethic in front of his new coach. He is one of three halfbacks in the squad for next season alongside new signing Matt Lucas and the player who finished this season in the No.9 jersey, Grayson Hart.
''As much as I guess that was a little bit of a disappointment, this is a new year and I can't wait to improve myself under Cheika and really try and adapt to the way he wants us to play, because I know that's going to be different,'' McKibbin said.
A consistently high-performing halfback/five-eighth combination will be key to the Waratahs success next year, much as it was the province's Achilles heel this year
❏ Irish star Brian O'Driscoll is considering a stint with the Waratahs to wrap up his storied career.
The 33-year-old Ireland captain, contracted to European Heineken Cup champions Leinster until mid-2013, mooted his desire for a switch in London's Daily Telegraph.
''The three best teams in the world make up the Super 15 and, and you look at the individuals and you look at the calibre of the sides and the quality of Super Rugby and the intensity of it, obviously it is a hugely high standard,'' said the Dublin-born centre.
''My time might have passed on that front but I'm definitely a never-say-never sort of person.''