The Rebels and Waratahs can ill afford another loss when they square off on Friday night and is Brad Thorn getting too much rope as Reds coach because of his legendary playing career?
Sam Worthington and Christy Doran tackle five burning questions ahead of round three of Super Rugby.
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1) Which team is under more pressure in Friday’s dance of the desperates?
Worthington: Both the Rebels and Waratahs are rightfully under the pump but the Melbourne club deserve more scrutiny given Dave Wessels is now in his third season as the coach.
Wessels has had some decent cattle to work with during his tenure but is yet to lead the club to the promised land of the finals.
Their start to the season has been unacceptable: a loss to the soon to be extinct Sunwolves and then falling into a 24-0 hole against the Brumbies before a second half rally added some respectability to the final scoreline.
As for the Tahs, Rob Penney is talking a good game and deserves a degree of patience but the actual on field product hasn’t yet improved from the Daryl Gibson.
You could argue he is under more pressure given NSW has a significantly larger fan base than the Rebels.
Doran: It’s hard question to answer because both the Waratahs and Rebels are under huge amounts of pressure — but for different reasons.
The Rebels need to win for Dave Wessels’ future at the club, while the Waratahs need to win for the sake of Australian rugby.
Wessels is in his third season in charge of the Rebels and if they don’t start winning, the writing will be on the wall.
Contrastingly, few expected the Waratahs to do much in 2020 because of the high turnover in personnel.
Rob Penney is in his first season in charge and has a brand new coaching team too.
But for the sake of Australian rugby, the Waratahs need to perform.
As Alan Jones regularly says, a strong NSW often means a strong Wallabies.
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2) Is Brad Thorn getting too much rope as Reds coach because of his legendary playing career?
Worthington: There is probably some truth in that accusation.
Thorn fits into that rare category of being almost universally loved and admired on both sides of the Tasman and in two codes for his genuinely incredible 20 year professional career.
He copped some flak for his shunning of Quade Cooper, Karmichael Hunt and James Slipper and all three have since played good rugby and been good role models for other teams.
But Thorn has been true to his word of promoting young Queensland talent and building a tough, uncompromising team in his image.
The next step is adding a bit of polish to the grit and finding a way to turn honourable losses into wins.
Like Wessels, he is in year three of a young coaching career so let’s judge him after that.
Let’s not forget that Nick Stiles got flicked after one year of being the sole head coach.
Two years and two matches later, the Reds still aren’t producing top-class, consistent performances.
They’re showing signs of improvement in 2020, but the jury is still out on whether Thorn is a head coach.
He’s respected for his deeds on the field and as a man-manager, but does he have the tactical nous? I’m not so sure.
I was staggered by the decision to leave Isaac Lucas off for 75 minutes against the Lions.
Hunter Paisami only got 12 minutes, while Moses Sorovi got five minutes too.
Is that the smartest use of your bench when you’re playing at altitude?
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3) What was your reaction to Rob Penney’s rejigged Waratahs line-up?
Worthington: Some gutsy calls including Angus Bell’s promotion — the 20-year-old will become the youngest prop to start a Super Rugby game in NSW history.
I also didn’t see Alex Newsome’s switch to outside centre coming after the winger dropped off a couple of costly tackles against the Blues.
But overall I don’t mind what he has done.
The hype around Bell appears to be justified and sticking with Will Harrison at No 10 is the right call for now.
Cam Clark is due a run on the wing after a pre-season injury setback while Jack Maddocks’s class is obvious.
Easing Mark Nawaqanitawase back to the bench is also sensible given his scary fall in Newcastle and some predictable teething problems in defence.
Doran: The changes to the pack I like, but I’m surprised by the decision to shift Alex Newsome to outside centre.
Newsome fell off a number of tackles last week but the Waratahs’ management like his energy and voice.
I would have dropped Newsome to the bench.
Another option would have been to shift Kurtley Beale to the centres and brought in Jack Maddocks, who has been selected on the wing, at fullback.
The Waratahs are missing Adam Ashley-Cooper in the outside channel.
They need to work on their connection and spacing.
4) Who is handling player management better in Super Rugby — Australia or New Zealand?
Worthington: With no World Cup to obsess over I prefer the Australian approach of trusting the clubs to do the right thing by their star players.
It was a point well made by Chiefs coach Warren Gatland and Highlanders assistant Tony Brown, men whose standing in the game means they are refreshingly not afraid to rattle the cage of NZ Rugby.
“Everyone is in a different boat,” Gatland said after downing the champion Crusaders.
“Some might need more than two games off.
“I’d like to see us work together.
“The people in charge need to trust us and if we don’t do a good job then don’t let us manage them.”
The part I particularly don’t like is putting minutes restrictions on players in games… they’re either good to go or not.
Doran: You would have to say New Zealand.
They might be copping a bit of flak for easing their top line talent back into the season, but there’s no doubt that Australia’s Super Rugby coaches would like to do the same.
The difficulty is they can’t.
Australia’s Super sides need to win.
5) Are the Brumbies a genuine title chance?
Worthington: They’re not my pick but the way the competition is set up they have a fighting chance.
Surely they will top the Australian conference and if they can pick up enough points to lock in home advantage throughout the finals then a third title is not completely far fetched.
The biggest question mark coming into the season was at No 10 but Noah Lolesio can really play.
They’ll be some ups and downs but his attitude and skillset are highly promising.
Doran: I still believe the Brumbies will top the Australian conference, but I fear that they’re a year or two away from being genuine title contenders.
A look through the history of the Super Rugby competition tells you that need a world class 10.
Noah Lolesio may well turn out to be world class in the future, but he’s a young man at this stage of his career.
The Brumbies’ front-row and back-row is exceptional, but they are a little short of big, powerful ballrunners in the second-row.