COVID, not roster management, to blame for Waratahs' woes

Waratahs assistant coach Chris Whitaker says it's the COVID pandemic and not the lack of player development that has thrust his franchise into arguably its deepest hole of the professional era.

The Waratahs were on Saturday night hammered 61-10 by the Brumbies in Canberra, the record margin against their southern rivals coming on the back of a record Super Rugby defeat by the Reds a week earlier.

NSW had been expected to struggle in 2021 - some pundits predicting a bottom-placed Super Rugby AU finish - but no one had forecast the twin thrashings to begin the season.

The results have put coach Rob Penney firmly in the spotlight, the coach saying he would be more than happy to "go gracefully" if that what senior management desired. But Penney seems to have the support of head office, his staff and the playing group as they all try to navigate their way out of a disastrous start to 2021.

Asked about the predicament the club found itself in playing wise, Whitaker pointed to the raft of departures over the previous two years as well as the onset of the coronavirus pandemic which he said had forced players to make decisions largely based on financial grounds.

"I think it's out of everyone's control. If you look at the players that left, it was all around the COVID issue, unfortunately everyone took a pay cut," Whitaker told reporters on Monday. "So unfortunately we couldn't keep guys, it's not like we didn't want to keep them, but financially we couldn't.

"So all that type of stuff is out of our hands, it wasn't a decision we made, we were given this squad. And the money restrictions and that stuff, we're doing what we can and as I said with the amount of turnover you have, it takes time to build those combinations.

"So that's the situation we're in and we can't change it, now it's about moving forward and doing the best we can."

While Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper is enjoying a six-month sabbatical in Japan, some of the other players to depart over the past few years include Kurtley Beale, Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Sekope Kepu, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Karmichael Hunt, Jed Holloway, Tom Robertson, Curtis Rona, Damian Fitzpatrick, Ned Hanigan, Rob Simmons, Cam Clark, Will Miller and Israel Folau.

One of the few Wallabies the Waratahs retain, Jack Dempsey, announced he would depart the club at season's end.

While there are a number of Wallabies among that wider bunch, there are also names who were consistent Super Rugby performers who never made the step up. And it's those players who are now perhaps more likely to look at a Japanese, European or even Major League Rugby deal, particularly given the tight financial situation of NSW Rugby.

There have been, however, suggestions of off-field disharmony within the Waratahs camp, which ESPN reported on earlier this year.

Whatever the case, Whitaker said it was not a result of NSW Rugby's development systems and a lack of serious investment in the National Rugby Championship, which was scrapped last year amid the pandemic and that Rugby Australia is yet to formally decide on for 2021.

"We've tried to use it. Firstly, the last few years we've had a lot of guys in the Wallabies setup and then we've had some injuries in the backend of the season," Whitaker said. "So if you look at that NRC a few years ago that I was involved with, we had Will Harrison who was playing colts at Randwick at the time, Ben Donaldson, Tane Edmed played...so there is a lot of guys who've come out of that [Sydney] NRC team.

"But I don't think that the development of the actual players is the issue, I think the issue is we're losing a lot of the senior guys because of the COVID thing and we're throwing these young guys, not just into game time, but leadership roles very early. But as I said give them time and they'll blossom for sure."

Whitaker also took hope from the turnaround at Queensland Reds under Brad Thorn, a coach who has been given time to mould his squad and who was initially lambasted some of the personnel decisions he made when first taking charge.

"They're a classic example aren't they? They're three or four years into that program now and if you look at it, Brad Thorn was given time," Whitaker said. "He made some pretty big calls, got rid of a few influential and experienced players but they've stuck with it and their getting the fruition of their decisions back then.

"But it all comes through patience and [being] willing to give these young guys time to develop as a team and individuals, and to gel to get that cohesion."