Israel Folau has provided the Waratahs with the cutting edge they craved. Photo: Getty Images
So there I was interviewing the Waratahs coach Matt Williams (1997-1999, and no finals appearances). "We’re developing what I call 'the 12 tribes of Israel' culture, where players feel they are part of a special, chosen group, the NSW Waratahs," he told me.
I know, I know. What do these words actually mean? I reported what Williams said, though. And "the 12 tribes of Israel" citation has become part of the folklore of the lost Waratahs, who are still without a Super Rugby title.
Williams was the second coach of the Waratahs in the professional era. The first, Chris Hawkins, was booted out in an office coup. Much of the franchise’s subsequent wandering in the Super Rugby wilderness can be attributed to Williams. He created the culture of indulgence that pandered to the whims of the players. This culture of player power off the field and player softness on the field manifested itself in the traditional Waratahs Wobbles at the championship end of the seasons.
The difference between the Waratahs of 2014 and the Waratahs since the Matt Williams era is summed up in two words: Michael Cheika. Now in his second year with the Waratahs, Cheika has revived the side and made it a genuine contender by returning to the great Waratahs tradition of running, try-scoring rugby.
Cheika has punished the players at training with the torturous ascents of the Coogee Steps. The message is tough love.
He has created a big pack that has plenty of mongrel to its play. The backs are slick and fast and include X-factor standouts such as Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale.
The Waratahs make more carries, gain more metres a match and pass more than any other team in the tournament. They have won all their home matches. Only the Hurricanes (42) have scored more tries than the Waratahs (37). The team is top of the Australian Conference (39 points) and second in the competition behind the Sharks (44), who have played one game more.
The Sharks have dominated their opponents by refusing to play any rugby inside their own territory. Cheika, to his credit, will not go down this negative path. He told reporters before the match against the Hurricanes early this month that the running game was in the Waratahs' DNA. Good. They then turned a 17-point deficit into a nine-point win. Very good.
On Saturday they play the Chiefs at New Plymouth. A win will entrench their finals chances. The Waratahs, though, have not won in New Zealand in the past four years. But they have secured bonus-point victories in their past three matches.
There is a virtuous circle at play, so far this season, with Cheika's Waratahs. They are slowly winning back the crowds that, understandably, deserted the team during the "win-ugly" era. They are genuine title contenders for the first time in years. And they are attracting interest from consortiums wanting to buy into the franchise.
The work of the present board, under the chairmanship of Roger Davis, has been better than the previous board. But the Waratahs franchise rates poorly against the Queensland Reds in terms of trophies, crowd support and membership numbers. So cue in bids to take over the Waratahs franchise.
The 1991 World Cup-winning coach Bob Dwyer and successful businessman and former ARU chairman Dilip Kumar have proposed a $10 million boost to community rugby in their bid to take over the Waratahs. Many in rugby have not forgiven Dwyer for his activities in Kerry Packer's bid to take over professional rugby in 1996. Kumar resigned over anger from the NZRU over Australia’s failure, at his instigation, to support its successful bid to host the 2011 RWC.
The presumption is that Japanese money will ballast this bid.
A second consortium bid is led by David Levy, the founder of the Waratahs sponsor Pet Resorts Australia. It includes seven other businessmen, including Michael Hendler, the founder of sportswear distribution company True Alliance. I Googled these companies and was impressed with their marketing and presentation skills.
It seems to me that this marketing nous and Cheika’s flair as a coach could create a fabulous Waratahs franchise, on and off the field.