Holloway, Hanigan, Wells and Dempsey. They are no household names but they’re the four loose forwards quietly finding their feet, and some influence, within the new generation Waratahs.
Jed Holloway and Jack Dempsey announced their arrival last season but both battled injury early this year, with Dempsey getting used to life in a moon boot currently and Holloway still enjoying the thrill of making his return.
Ned Hanigan and Michael Wells are the players enjoying their time in the sun as a result, both impressing with tries against the Rebels in the Waratah’s comeback win in Melbourne last week.
Forwards coach Cam Blades praised Hanigan’s contribution at No.6 as “outstanding”, while Wells’ 77-minute try helped seal the comeback.
Sunday presents a tougher test for the new kids in the form of New Zealand conference leaders the Crusaders, a team for whom the term ‘comeback win’ has become a catch cry in this season’s opening rounds.
“Everyone talks up the Kiwi teams as that benchmark and any competitive team wants to test themselves against the benchmark,” Wells said.
“That’s a big thing for us. If we want to be the best at the end of the year we’re going to have to step through. We’ve put ourselves in a position where our backs are against the wall, being one and three last week. We got a win out when we really needed to and we’ve got to keep building from there and continuing to win.
“If that means going through the best opposition that’s what it is, we’ve got to continue to do it.”
Wells returned to the starting line-up in Melbourne after an ankle injury claimed most of Dempsey’s season two weeks ago.
The one-season Brumby and Norths product, who was instrumental in his club’s drought-breaking Shute Shield win last year, said he was delighted to notch his first Super Rugby try but was more pleased to contribute to a belief-building win.
That late victory, termed rugby’s equivalent of “chicken soup for the soul” by coach Daryl Gibson, will be important against the well-drilled New Zealand outfit, who are yet to feel the sting of defeat.
“Outsiders watching don’t expect n teams to win, so if you buy into that belief of ‘we’re the underdogs here’, you can find yourselves in the position where you should win a game and you’ll find a way to lose it,” Wells said.
“Hopefully if we find ourselves in a similar position … I think the team’s got enough belief to get through and last week really helps with that. We had two tries in three minutes to really put us ahead at the end and knowing we can do that against a team that was all over us in the first half, putting a lot of points on us, it puts us in a good position against the Crusaders.”
The Waratahs trained without Test players Bernard Foley and Rob Horne on Monday, as well as Holloway, but forwards coach Cam Blades said he did not think any of them were at risk of missing Sunday’s match.
The Crusaders will arrive in Sydney high on confidence and battle-hardened after eking out wins against the Reds and Blues.
Blades, whose forwards put out a greatly improved performance in Melbourne to make the job easier for returning No.10 Foley said the Waratahs would be prepared for battle.
“The Crusaders are a great side, they’ve taken guys apart in the set piece throughout the year,” he said.
“Every side’s got their vulnerabilities and we’ll be looking to exploit those on Sunday. The Crusaders all year have gone to their forward pack as their launch pad to everything they’ve done.
“They’re obviously the benchmark at the moment and you like testing yourself against those sorts of teams.”