‘We went backwards’: Why Coleman fears it’s his final chance to turn Tahs around

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Waratahs coach Darren Coleman knows he will have to earn a contract extension next year after admitting NSW went “backwards” in 2023.

Coleman vowed to put his head down and work hard to make amends for another disappointing Super Rugby Pacific season after exiting at the quarter-final stage in successive seasons.

After finishing sixth in the regular season, as they did in 2022 during Coleman’s first year in charge, the Waratahs were blown away by a ruthless Auckland Blues outfit at Eden Park on Friday night.

The 41-12 loss was, on paper at least, worse than the 39-15 defeat in the corresponding quarter-final clash against the Chiefs last year.

NSW won just six games this year, compared to eight in 2022, something Coleman acknowledged.

“Results-wise, we actually went backwards, which was disappointing,” Coleman said. “I feel like we’re stuck in a ditch. The top five teams we can’t seem to get at the moment, and the bottom teams we seem to beat regularly and pretty well, with all due respect to Moana [Pasifika] last week [who beat the Waratahs 33-24].”

Waratahs coach Darren Coleman.Credit: Getty

Coleman has one season remaining on his three-year contract and said he would love to stay. But he is under no illusions that in a results-driven business, the decision might not be his, given the Waratahs fell short of the top-four goal they made very public at the start of the season.

“I’m not feeling great today,” Coleman said on Saturday. “I love this job. I firmly believe we are trending in the right way.

“We haven’t spoken about an extension, and nor would I expect them to come to me, given the season we just had. I’ll keep my head down, work hard, get results next year and hopefully stay on if they want me. If not, I get it, you’ve got to win and win championships to keep the job.

“This year overall wasn’t great, but I imagine if you’d asked Tahs fans – or myself when I took it over – you probably would have taken sixth after year two. I’m really determined to tweak things, both in me and my program, to get the best out of the boys next year. What goes on after that is a long time away.

Michael Hooper sits alone after his final game as a Waratah.Credit: Getty

“You see me at press conferences, I ride the highs and lows, probably too much.”

Coleman spent Saturday afternoon with Waratahs staff “lamenting what could have been” over a few quiet beers and a barbecue while watching other finals matches.

Rugby union-bound Roosters star Joseph Suaalii.Credit: Getty

After a tough run with injuries and a tricky draw against Kiwi teams, Coleman said the team has the ingredients to improve next season.

However, despite persistent rumours that the Roosters could offload Joseph Suaalii a year early, Coleman does not expect the young star to be at NSW before his scheduled start time in 2025.

Asked if the Waratahs would take Suaalii early, Coleman said: “No comment. I’ll upset people if I say yes or no. It’s a Rugby Australia matter to resolve. When we heard those rumblings [about an early arrival], RA inquired to his agent. We know the agent well. We’ve got a few boys with him.

“It’s just paper talk and something we haven’t thought about. We’re planning to have a roster without him.”

When Coleman signed in 2021, his primary objective was to win back disgruntled Waratahs fans who had just sat through a horror winless year. It is his biggest regret following a season of what-ifs.

“I feel mostly for the NSW rugby people who want to support a winning team,” Coleman said. “You saw how many came out in round one against the Brumbies and how many came out to farewell Michael Hooper [last week]. There are people there who are willing us to do well and that’s what hurts us most. We just couldn’t perform when we needed to for our supporters.

“I’m also optimistic and positive around what this group can do. We weren’t good enough for long enough. That was the story of our season. You can call yourself inconsistent, which is another word for shit.

“We had a draw that was hard to make the top four but easy to make the top eight. I just feel in the big games, when we needed to perform, there were some let-downs. We let ourselves down in round one against the Brumbies, we played OK against Drua, really bad against Melbourne, and then had three hard away games.”

Coleman offered the names Langi Gleeson, Max Jorgensen, Mahe Vailanu, Dylan Pietsch and Joey Walton as players whose stocks had risen during the season.

The Waratahs are still hoping to sign a back-rower and a winger for next season, but won’t break the bank to do so. As many as 10 players could leave NSW next season, including playmakers Ben Donaldson and Will Harris, as revealed by this masthead.

“We know as NSW we produce a lot of the talent … so we have to be accurate and smart with our cap management,” Coleman said.

“The majority of that squad are young guys. They’re all in their low 20s and they’ll have another year of cohesion. We’ve specifically recruited some boys back from Europe. I’m always optimistic. I can’t wait to get stuck into next year already.”

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