Rugby Union

Super Rugby 2016: NSW Waratahs brace for epic season ahead

We're within touching distance of the Super Rugby season and the NSW Waratahs have experienced a relatively smooth pre-season, knocking off the Brumbies before going down to the Chiefs and Highlanders across the ditch. 

Here are some of the main talking points before the season gets under way at Allianz Stadium on Saturday. 

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Super Rugby season launched

The 2016 Super Rugby season was launched at Wet'n'Wild water park in Sydney's west with Wycliff Palu (Waratahs), Christian Lealiifano (Brumbies), Nic Stirzaker (Rebels), Matt Hodgson (Force) and James Slipper (Reds) speaking.

Backline shuffle

The Waratahs' backline has been the subject of much debate, but after three trials – and two with almost full-strength sides – coach Daryl Gibson has all but locked down his number nine to 15.

Ready to go: Kurtley Beale impressed against the Highlanders.
Ready to go: Kurtley Beale impressed against the Highlanders. Photo: Getty Images

Halfback Nick Phipps will be without his suitable ally in Bernard Foley for at least two games, meaning Kurtley Beale will fill the role in which he debuted as an 18-year-old before becoming the Waratahs' first string No.10 in 2008.

As for the wingers, NRL recruit Reece Robinson and All Black representative Zac Guildford will operate out wide, with their speed and footwork a feature that will hold them in good stead.

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Rob Horne (outside centre) and David Horwitz (inside centre) are expected to plug the rest of the backline, but Matt Carraro, who has played trials in the centres and on the wing, could also be in the mix for selection. 

Injury front

On first glance, Bernard Foley's shoulder complaint could not have come at a worse time for the Waratahs, but when reflecting on just how much rugby he has played – and it set to feature in this year – a stint on the sidelines might be the refresher he needs so he doesn't burn out.

Wycliff Palu did not see any game time in Japan as a result of a hamstring injury he picked up in the World Cup. He says he will be fit for game one, but it appears likely Gibson will give No.8 Jed Holloway the nod with the option of bringing Palu off the bench.

After copping a sickening head knock in the first trial against the Brumbies, Dave Dennis has recovered well from all reports and will start at blindside flanker.

The No.10 factor

Beale's lack of time at five-eighth might give critics reason to think he lacks the spark and flair needed to get the Waratahs' season rollicking along. 

Meanwhile, Horwitz was a No.10 in his junior days before playing more inside centre in the NRC, but said he takes inspiration from Beale.

"I find I learn a lot more off Kurtley Beale every day than I do from the coaches," Horwitz said during the pre-season. 

The other name on Gibson's backup list will be former Melbourne Rebels playmaker Bryce Hegarty who was signed as insurance in case Foley did pick up an injury. 

New coach and captain

Daryl Gibson and Michael Hooper have been involved with Waratahs as coach and player for some now, but until this season never has the team been their own baby.

The importance of Gibson during the Michael Cheika years must not be underrated, for his tactics as attack coach have paved the foundations of a successful franchise.

For Hooper, he doesn't see the captaincy as whole lot more than a tag, but the respect he commands from players, in a similar mould to now club captain Dave Dennis, should culminate in favourable performances on the paddock.

Starting well

It is imperative for the Waratahs to get off to an auspicious start. The first seven of 15 games are in Australia, but because of the June Test period, they feature in just one game in Sydney across eight weeks between late May to late July with trips to Tokyo and New Zealand thrown in.

Luckily for the Waratahs, they have all three of last year's other semi-finalists in the Brumbies, Highlanders and Hurricanes at home at some stage during the season.

Does the squad lack depth?

The departures of Adam Ashley-Cooper, Jacques Potgieter and Sekope Kepu have raised questions as to whether the Waratahs can go deep into the business end of the competition.

While a number of young forwards will have to step up to the plate the starting XV oozes class and contains more Australian representatives than not, which on paper should see them feature in the finals yet again. 

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