Coach Rob Penney has recalled two Wallaby forwards into his starting pack – and named a former Eel to the bench – for the Waratahs clash with the Blues in Newcastle on Saturday night.
With wet weather forecast for the round two clash at MacDonald Jones Stadium, the forward battle will take on extra significance and Penney has turned to Test players by elevating Jack Dempsey from the bench to start at no.8, replacing Jed Holloway.
Novocastrian tighthead prop Harry Johnson-Holmes, who made his Wallabies debut last year in South Africa, will start at tighthead after missing the Tahs’ round one loss to the Crusaders due to illness.
Penney stuck solid with his young backline, led by Will Harrison at no.10, but has named former NRL star Tepai Moeroa on the bench for a probable debut.
Moeroa was recruited from league last year but didn’t play in the trials.
“He covers the midfield really and probably moreso 12, than 13, but he can cover both,” Penney said of Moeroa.
“It’s early days for him but he is a big strong man and he has a good skillset, and his game understanding is what has really grown over the last month, and we think the time is right now to see if it’s grown to a good enough level to contribute positively.
“We think he will. And if we’re right we have another great bit of talent and depth in that midfield position that will be very strong for us.”
Penney said the back row change was part of a process to determine NSW’s “best mix”, with Dempsey joining Michael Hooper and Lachie Swinton to take on the Blues.
Dempsey had injury setbacks over summer but is now fit, Penney said.
“After a couple of good performances off the bench, he (Dempsey) looks like he is well now, which is great,” he said.
“Jed has gone really good, we are wrapped with what Jed has contributed to the group.
“We are yet to formulate what will ultimately be our best mix, and that’s a bit of a process that’s going on. It will take a bit of time.”
After an impressive debut performance against the Crusaders in Nelson from Harrison, there was no question that he would get another chance at no.10, said Penney.
“I think it is pretty obvious really, a young ten needs time. He is not going to learn it sitting on the bench, not taking part in some way. He needs a meaningful opportunity,” Penney said.
“As does any young player, but particularly at ten which is such a difficult and challenging position to play. All the decision making and chaos that goes on around you, it’s a position moreso than any other where a player can grow given the opportunity.
“We saw more than enough in Will last week to indicate he is going to be a really good prospect there, so he gets a chance to take another step forward this week.”
Penney said the Blues were a strong opponent who’d played good football against the Chiefs in round one, but similarly to the Waratahs, suffered with lapses in intensity and concentration.
“When the Chiefs stepped up the intensity, a few errors crept in and they turned over balls at crucial times in that second half. They’re capable, their first forty minutes was good and if they’d played like that for eighty they would have won,” Penney said.
“It’ll depend a little bit, when you play the Blues, it depends on which team turns up. If they’re up and excited they will be very, very dangerous.
“Obviously the weather conditions for the weekend don’t look like they’ll be conducive to too-expansive a game style so I guess the team that adjusts better on the night will have a positive outcome.
Injuries have resulted in the only changes made to the Blues team for their Investec Super Rugby game against the Waratahs in Newcastle on Saturday.
Both sides were first round losers, the Blues to the Chiefs and the Waratahs to the Crusaders.
Out for the Blues as a result of injuries suffered in the first game are wing Rieko Ioane (hand), flanker Tony Lamborn (infection), prop Alex Hodgman (calf) and hooker Ray Nuia (knee).
Northland wing Jordan Hyland will start in Ioane’s place, Blake Gibson will start on the flank while Karl Tu’inukuafe (pictured) will start at prop.
Hooker James Parsons will come off the bench having recovered from an off-season injury while Tom Robinson makes way for Josh Goodhue start at lock alongside captain Patrick Tuipulotu.
Still not ready to be considered are: Otere Black (rib), Finlay Christie (neck), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti (shoulder), Jared Page (hamstring), Tanielu Tele’a (shoulder), James Tucker (knee).
Coach Leon MacDonald said injuries were part and parcel of the competition but they gave opportunities so early in the season to others who had been putting in the work at training.
MacDonald said some of the play and intent during the first half of their game with the Chiefs and at times in the second half had been outstanding.
“We managed to get good fast ball, we executed some strikes really well and I thought our defensive line got up and created lots of pressure,” he said.
What let the side down had been some momentum swings they hadn’t managed as well as they would have liked.
“That’s what we dug into in the review and looking at solutions at how we control those better and why they won there and we were unable to. So we’ve got a bit of a plan in place around that and that’s exciting,” he said.
They were looking at the insertion of more excitement from those players not called upon during the first week and that was encouraging because it brought another level of energy.
“So we’ve got a good squad, we’re confident in all our squad so we’ve got no doubt they can step up,” he said.
“The pack will be the cornerstone and we will look to provide the platform for our backs to show their skills against what will be a very good Waratahs team,” he said.
Playing at Newcastle would be a new experience that would to the desire to put in a better performance, MacDonald said.
Waratahs: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Lalakai Foketi, 12 Karmichael Hunt, 11 Mark Nawaqanitawase, 10 Will Harrison, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Jack Dempsey, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Lachie Swinton, 5 Rob Simmons (c), 4 Tom Staniforth, 3 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 2 Robbie Abel, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Angus Bell, 18 Tetera Faulkner, 19 Ryan McCauley, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Tepai Moeroa, 22 Mitch Short, 23 Jack Maddocks
Blues: 1.Karl Tu’inukuafe, 2.Kurt Eklund, 3.Sione Mafileo, 4.Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 5.Josh Goodhue, 6.Dalton Papalii, 7.Blake Gibson, 8.Hoskins Sotutu, 9.Jonathan Ruru, 10.Stephen Perofeta, 11.Mark Telea, 12.TJ Faiane, 13.Joe Marchant, 14.Jordan Hyland, 15.Matt Duffie.
Replacements: 16.James Parsons, 17.Ezekiel Lindenmuth, 18.Ofa Tuungafasi, 19.Tom Robinson, 20.Akira Ioane, 21.Sam Nock, 22.Harry Plummer, 23.Emoni Narawa.
Waratahs v Blues
@ McDonald Jones Stadium
Referee: AJ Jacobs (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Damon Murphy (Australia), Nic Berry (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)