Rescue mission

Can Darren Coleman pull off another rescue mission with NSW?

And not just rebuild, but succeed. In most of his various coaching gigs over 20 years in Italy, Japan, the United States and the Shute Shield and NRC, Coleman invariably elevated his team to silverware, promotion or, at least , throwing punches as a runner-up. Over the past five years, Coleman has won two Shute Shield titles with Warringah and Gordon and a Major League Rugby title with new Los Angeles franchise the Giltinis.

No wonder then the Waratahs jumped on Coleman. If anyone needs a savior, it’s the once-proud Tahs, who finished last in 2021 and were rock bottom after an unprecedented winless season.

With all due respect to club rugby and MLR, Super Rugby is a big step forward in terms of pressure, expectation and attention. And Coleman knows it. But that doesn’t mean its formula is changing.

“I am a realist. I understand that we are the last but in fact it is very similar to Gordon. I actually didn’t expect we could do it in year one…but we’re at a point where there’s quite a bit of similarity,” Coleman said.

Gordon players with the Shute Shield after their 28-8 win over Eastwood in 2020.Credit:Karen Watson

“In that first year, we won our share of games and fell at the last hurdle and finished seventh, just missing the play-offs. But we took an important step. We got credibility in the program, we had people who wanted to play for us, we had players who were already there who thought they were good players, and then the next year we went on and we won it.

There are two fundamental pillars in Coleman’s coaching philosophy: emotional connections and the pursuit of excellence.

The latter is refined to “do your best”, but not in a safe and clichéd way. Coleman ruthlessly rides the players to bring their A game to everything they do and there’s real “accountability” every day of the week, the players say. Gone is the ‘good cop’ approach that has helped guide a young team in recent years, but has blunted the edges.

Coleman says he knows his teams are on the right track when players “self-train” and arrive at one-on-one meetings having already identified their mistakes in a game.

“If they see the same things and are brave enough to admit their weaknesses or their mistakes, then we hum,” Coleman said.

Former Waratah Dave Dennis and NSW manager Darren Coleman in Los Angeles in 2020.

Former Waratah Dave Dennis and NSW manager Darren Coleman in Los Angeles in 2020.Credit:Getty

A second big pillar for Coleman is forging “emotional bonds” within a team.

And it’s not just the now-standard vulnerability sessions, though Coleman uses those as well. Waratahs players sat in a chair during pre-season and told personal stories to the team about how resilient they had to be in their lives.

“I really believe there are points in an emotional connection: players will defend with more passion and pride, they will put their bodies on the line,” he said.

“But the other emotional thing that we underestimate is the value of laughter and people having fun. They’ll get down to business and be happy to be there. I still feel like my team is doing well. if I’m in the office and I hear a lot of joking and laughing in the team room.

The most fertile places for rapid change are teams desperate to escape their gloom, Coleman found.

Darren Coleman at NSW training.

Darren Coleman at NSW training.Credit:Peter Rae

“You fight for everything and one day you get that win that you’re not supposed to win,” Coleman said.

“Then you have conviction and you get some momentum, and that’s a powerful tool. Once a guy believes he can do something, he will keep doing it.

The Test wins over the Brumbies and Reds therefore provided timely value and could prove to be a turning point. Or not.

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On the eve of the Super Rugby season proper, the question remains unanswered: can Coleman’s magic formula work for the Waratahs? Can the coach emulate the last Waratahs head coach with Shute Shield roots, who took the team from the pillory in 2012 to the Premiers in 2014?

Coleman pauses.

“I’m going to say this – we’re going to be in the fight,” he said.

“And when you’re in the fight, you have a chance to hit.”

Watch all matches from Six Nations and Super Rugby Pacific on the home of rugby, Stan Sport. Super Rugby Pacific kicks off this weekend with Waratahs v Fijian Drua (Friday 7:00pm AEDT), Reds v Rebels (Saturday 7:00pm) and Brumbies v Force (Sunday 1:30pm AEDT). All streaming ad-free, live and on-demand only on Stan Sports.

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