Waratahs’ Kiwi signings suggest glory days are still some way off

Australian rugby needs the Waratahs to be strong, as much as those outside NSW hate to admit it.

There is a reason the Waratahs and Reds will feature on free-to-air television five times next year during Super Rugby AU as part of the new broadcast deal with Nine, the publisher of this masthead.
NSW and Queensland are where the audiences are to be found, and Rugby Australia probably needs either the Waratahs or the Reds – and preferably both – to be at the top of the ladder, challenging for the title and subsequently giving the trans-Tasman competition a real crack, too.

Jack Whetton is one of two Kiwi locks crossing the Tasman to join the Waratahs next season.Credit:AP

Whetton, 28, has had his best year in New Zealand rugby. He played plenty of minutes for the Highlanders this year and grew with every outing, taking that form into the Mitre 10 Cup for Auckland before a nasty fall at lineout time interrupted his season. At the Highlanders,
they talked about his desire to improve and dedication to the set-piece. He’s not the tallest
lock in the world at 196cm but his hard work around the lineout saw him develop into a reliable option.

When the Highlanders’ No.1 caller, Josh Dickson, broke a leg during Super Rugby Aotearoa this year, Whetton came into the side and took over that responsibility. However, his greatest asset at set-piece time is probably the grunt he offers to the scrum. He’s a powerful man and a natural 'tighthead' lock, so Harry Johnson-Holmes will benefit from the horsepower Whetton generates.

The Highlanders used to pick Whetton specifically for Crusaders games to counter the scrum threat Scott Robertson's side would bring.

Despite all of those qualities, however, he might have still been seen as fourth choice lock at the Highlanders next year, behind Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson and Manaaki Selby-Rickit.

Sam Caird is in many ways the more exciting acquisition.Credit:Getty

Is Whetton an upgrade on the departed Tom Staniforth? It’s debatable.

Caird, 23, is in many ways the more exciting signing. At 202cm, he has a big, athletic frame and a decent engine to power it around the paddock.

In the Mitre 10 Cup semi-final against Otago last week, Caird – who played his provincial rugby for Northland this year – had enough left in the tank inside the last 10 minutes to make a line break, charge 40 metres and set up a try for his halfback with an inside pass.

His background in rowing should ensure that fitness is not an issue, and given the lack of quality big men in New Zealand his departure to the Waratahs raised some eyebrows.

Nonetheless, there is a roughness to his work that will require significant polishing before he can become a quality Super Rugby player. During the Mitre 10 Cup, he has mixed moments of physicality with a dropped pass here, and a cheap penalty there. There is a reason why he was on the fringes at both the Chiefs and Blues without really cracking either side.

The tricky thing for the Waratahs is that the second row is one position in Australia where teams can expect to be exposed if they don’t get it right.

Despite European sides’ almost endless appetite for Australian tall timber, the Reds (Angus Blyth and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto), the Brumbies (Cadeyrn Neville, Nick Frost and Darcy Swain) and to a lesser extent the Rebels (Trevor Hosea and Esei Haangana) will all manage to put together good combinations in 2021.

But perhaps this is where the Waratahs’ fundamental issue lies. Matt Philip, Izack Rodda, Will Skelton, Luke Holmes, Rory Arnold, Rob Simmons and Harry Hockings are all overseas, or heading that way.

The Australian production line has been diverted to overseas markets, and it can’t be reversed soon enough.

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