SYDNEY – The New South Wales Waratahs are not the first rugby team to come away from Invercargill chastened but the crushing 49-12 loss to the Otago Highlanders that ended their 2019 Super Rugby season must raise some serious questions.
That the Waratahs were still in with a shot at the playoffs going into the final match of the regular season despite a 6-9 record was a reflection of a Super Rugby competition that was more open than usual.
Any doubts about whether the Waratahs deserved that spot were removed over 40-something bruising first half minutes when they shipped 42 points to the team that took the Super Rugby title away from them in 2015.
There have been distractions this year, not least the protracted and wounding Israel Folau saga, but the bottom line is that Australia's richest and best-resourced state has failed to reach the playoffs for three of the last four years.
Coach Daryl Gibson has presided over those four campaigns and it is perhaps a measure of how low expectations have fallen in Australian rugby that he was granted a contract extension to the end of 2020 in February.
It is, after all, little more than a decade since Ewen McKenzie was summarily sacked despite getting the Waratahs to the 2008 Super Rugby final, his second title-decider in five years as coach.
Gibson appears eternally optimistic that the Rolls Royce of an attack that he has tried to build at the club will eventually show itself in more than spurts and said that, but for a few moments, the 2019 season could have turned out very differently.
"I'm obviously pretty disappointed with the result and where we finished," he told reporters in Invercargill.
"Barring tonight's blowout, we were very competitive throughout the year. We've had some low losing margins, just down to losing those critical moments. That's really tough."
Gibson was never likely to blame Folau for the disappointing season but three wins from nine matches since the Wallabies fullback was suspended for controversial social media posts is a telling statistic.
Nick Phipps, who captained an inexperienced side at Invercargill in the absence of the rested Michael Hooper, was not so shy a couple of weeks ago, suggesting the Folau saga had cost the Waratahs a playoff place.
The Wallabies scrumhalf will be off to London Irish at the end of the season – one of a string of players leaving Sydney for pastures new – but said the younger Waratahs would be better for having experienced Friday's drubbing.
"It's been a disappointing year for us, we haven't performed as we should have and it is disappointing for the club," he said.
"But out there tonight are a lot of players who are going to be taking this team forward, and they're going to be better players after being blooded in one of the toughest cauldrons around."AFP