One of the team’s new assistants was Simon Cron, who’d won a Shute Shield title with Norths and was highly rated. Cron made no secret to those in charge he wanted be the side’s head coach one day.
The problem, however, was then Waratahs chief executive Andrew Hore. Hore and Cron didn’t see eye to eye, but the CEO wanted Cron to stay on.
Hore couldn’t promise Cron he’d be Gibson’s successor, however, and the CEO said in the media at the time he still needed to work on some elements of his coaching.
Waratahs figures were privately concerned Cron might restructure the entire program and change personnel around him.
In February 2019, with the team on a high, Gibson agreed to take up an option in his contract that allowed him to stay on at the Waratahs in 2020. Cron decided to leave to take up a head coach job at Toyota Verblitz in Japan under the mentorship of Steve Hansen – but, four months after re-committing, Gibson decided to leave after all.
“It was ill-conceived and not thought about,” said one former Wallaby of not keeping Cron involved.
A former NSW player who worked under Cron said: “If you’re a CEO, it would have been a logical decision to keep him on. I don’t know if it was a clash of egos.”
Hore was, around the same time, also talking to Auckland about a move back to New Zealand. First, however, he hired Penney, unveiling him the Hilton at Tokyo Bay during the Rugby World Cup.
Five days later, Hore resigned to become Auckland Rugby chief executive, prompting furious NSW chairman Roger Davis to blast the Kiwi’s exit as “shit timing”.
For Penney, it was hardly a settled environment to walk into.
Penney and Rapp friction
Multiple sources have told the Herald that by 2020, Penney and general manager of rugby Tim Rapp were “butting heads” when it came to recruitment and a style of play.
Multiple players became aware that Penney and Rapp weren’t on the same page and so too at board level. When they were asked to present strategies regarding recruitment and retention, they often did it separately.
There was clear friction, according to insiders, with Rapp having built up the roster but with Penney, the new guy on the block, wanting to do things his way. In terms of the style of rugby, the pair disagreed in many ways.
Even if 2020 was billed as a “rebuilding year” for the baby Tahs, many have noted the Crusaders, where Penney cut his teeth through the Canterbury system, and Brumbies never go through such a stages of regeneration because of a solid production line.
“I get the theory around taking the youth route but I feel it’s a cop out to save money or make an excuse for losing,” said one departed player.
Some player managers couldn’t get a straight answer from the Waratahs as to whether their client was wanted or not.
A case in point was Karmichael Hunt. The player wanted to stay and Penney wanted him. But Rapp didn’t, and in the end, the dual international was let go. His experience has been sorely missed this season.
Rapp, who had been at the organisation since 2014, departed recently to take up a school position. Of the 2018 quarter-final starting team that beat the Highlanders, only Alex Newsome remains.
Since 2019, no less than 15 players who have represented the Wallabies have departed the Waratahs. The list is a tough pill to swallow for NSW, even from the 2018 quarter-final team. Think Folau, Beale, Naiyaravoro, Foley, Phipps, Hanigan, Simmons, Kepu, Robertson.
Robertson, who has moved to the Force, recently raised eyebrows by saying “off-field issues” was one reason the 24-Test prop walked out of NSW. Sources say Robertson was not impressed by the appointment of Mark Bell, the father of new Wallaby Angus Bell, as scrum coach. With Robertson and Bell vying for the same position, it was a strained dynamic, to the point Robertson even sought advice from another scrum mentor.
In Penney’s first press conference, he spoke about the need to find a tight-head prop, for was no secret Kepu was going to leave the Waratahs.
In the end, Harry Johnson-Holmes was asked to switch over to the tight-head side, something that takes time to get right. Why wasn’t there a succession plan in place?
The likes of Mike Alaalatoa and Angus Ta’avoa were let go managed to forge excellent careers in New Zealand once they left the Waratahs.
While there has been steady change at board level, chairman Roger Davis has overseen the Waratahs since 2012 and despite the club being under the microscope this week, he is in Tasmania hiking and has been uncontactable all week. He will face stiff questions when he returns, having overseen year after year of poor results.
By the end of last year, Penney was frustrated. He had been told by Paul Doorn, the new chief executive, that budgets were tight and with no broadcast deal signed, NSW were going to refrain from signing players on big money. NSWRU chiefs were concerned about going broke if they spent more than their share of the pie.
Rival clubs kept signing and re-signing players, however, and when the Waratahs finally got into the market, they weren’t operating on a level playing field. From a business perspective, it made sense, but it meant the Waratahs had one hand behind their back.
Had Beale not been on the outer with Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, he might have stayed. Rob Simmons could have been a chance of staying on but packed up and left for London Irish. Had COVID-19 not occurred, Michael Hooper wouldn’t be in Japan.
But could the Waratahs have fought tooth and nail to convince Hooper to stay for this season? The Rebels certainly did for Matt To’omua and Dane Haylett-Petty, who were entitled to take up sabbatical deals.
Some players, like Tom Staniforth, wanted to make up the money elsewhere, but a player like Ned Hanigan should never have been allowed to leave.
Among the playing ranks, Penney and his assistants are respected. He doesn’t appear to have lost the dressing room, with one current player saying he’s never wanted to play for a coach more.
But decision makers on the NSWRU board are also wondering: is Penney the charismatic coach required to build the Waratahs back up? A Cheika-like figure who can convince seasoned players to stay, or return home, for less money and the promise of a title run? If not, who is that coach?
There are concerns at Wallabies level that talented youngsters at NSW – with Test futures – have been thrown en masse into Super Rugby before they are ready. It is not their fault, but a byproduct of questionable list management, a handful of early-season injuries and a foreign market that is only getting more enticing for players who were forced to take COVID-19 pay cuts.
By the same token, there are highly-rated players with Wallabies honours who are not playing to their potential.
Some believe the onus also falls on national director of rugby, Scott Johnson, to be assisting NSW and overseeing talent identification.
A losing environment is not pleasant for anyone and one rival club official believes there is no longer the same burning desire among Sydney club players to become a Waratah.
While a win will go a long way against the Force on Friday, the Waratahs certainly face a long road back after a rocky few years.
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Tom Decent is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald