New forwards coach Cameron Blades is challenging the NSW Waratahs pack to take their game to unseen levels as the deposed Super Rugby champions strive to overcome an exodus of star players in 2016.
Vowing to be his own man after replacing Argentine scrum guru Mario Ledesma, Blades says tighthead props Paddy Ryan and Kiwi recruit Angus Ta’avao also have the added responsibility of trying to fill the boots of 63-Test Wallabies front-rower Sekope Kepu.
Kepu is now plying his trade in Bordeaux, alongside former Waratahs vice-captain Adam Ashley-Cooper, while retired forwards Stephen Hoiles and Mitchell Chapman, wingers Peter Betham and Taqele Naiyaravoro and halfback Brendan McKibbon are other key players to have left voids in the NSW ranks.
Blades has been commissioned not only to rebuild the Waratahs scrum, but also upskill the NSW forwards to ensure the 2014 champions can persist with their dynamic style of rugby first introduced by now-fulltime Wallabies coach Michael Cheika.
Ryan said he welcomed the challenged after being among several forwards asked to complete Tuesday’s pre-season session with some old-fashioned drawing-and-passing drills.
“We’ve seen it in probably rugby league and other sports where you can’t afford just to be good at one thing. You’ve got to be able to be skilful around the park,” Ryan said.
“We like to play attacking footy – we make no secrets about that – so the big guys have been told to up their skill levels.
“So that means a few extra passes after training for a lot of us, especially left to right.”
Ryan’s most onerous task, though, is fighting former Auckland Blues prop Ta’avao for a starting berth as Kepu’s replacement, a position vacant role Blades describes as crucial.
“Your tighthead prop is the cornerstone of your pack and you need someone there who is not only going to hold his own but look to dominate,” Blades said.
“So I’m really hopeful that one or both of them will do that job.”
Blades says Ryan will continue to be considered as a back-up loosehead, but sees the one-Test Wallaby chiefly as a tighthead option.
“It’s good for their development and good for the squad to have two guys both desperate for that starting spot,” he said.
For all the plaudits Ledesma drew for helping transform the NSW and Wallabies scrums last season, Blades knows the Waratahs must improve further to be a force in 2016.
“Despite the high position the team ended up, last year I think we were about 10th in terms of scrummaging success and the lineout was down below that,” he said.
“Mario’s done some great things here, and also with the Wallabies and whilst I’ll be taking some of his things going forward, I’ll be putting my own flavour.
“Things like making sure that players have got the individual skills and physical ability to perform their roles at the set piece and then obviously build it around that.”