Sam Bruce, ESPN Associate Editor 3y

Charting a preseason: Inside the Waratahs 2019 preparations

Red in the face, Waratahs youngster Mack Mason takes a seat. Having just wrapped up a testing morning session on a sweltering summer's day, barramundi fishing with his brother in the Katherine is now just a distant memory.

A fortnight out from Christmas, the 23-year-old has traded the wild pigs of the Territory for rugby balls and the weights room at Daceyville in southern Sydney.

Welcome to preseason at NSW Waratahs.

"The first week is always the hardest," Mason tells ESPN. "Getting back into that routine after a break; probably mentally, you're not playing games on the weekend so you've got nothing to prepare for.

'So you're preparing for the whole of next year and at the end of the year, around Christmas time, all your friends and family are away having fun, and you're still training for next year."

The Tahs' home is anything but glamorous. The David Phillips Sports Complex has the look of an under-funded primary school, the head office, which basically resembles one long demountable, backs onto a verandah that encloses the training field.

It won't be that way for long, however, after the NSW State Government announced a $20 million grant to create a NSW Rugby Centre of Excellence, a move the Waratahs say will take the game "into the modern era."

But it's no frills for the time being, much like the squad that is working away before the Christmas break. The club's Wallabies won't return until the middle of January - skipper Michael Hooper does on this day casually stroll down the steps - so it's players like Mason, who is coming off a frustrating 2018, that are putting in the foundations for a club looking to go one game better than it did just six months ago.

"It certainly was [there for the taking], we'd had an excellent week of preparation, the game plan, we felt we were really ready and had the necessary ingredients to take that game," coach Daryl Gibson says reflecting on the 32-16 loss to the Lions that brought down the curtain on the Waratahs' 2018 season.

"The great thing about that loss, as much as we were really disappointed, the boys really galvanised after that in terms of the motivation and determination to go a step further. And so our preseason really started then when we said to each other 'listen, we believe we can take that step', and we're very determined to do that."

After reviewing their 2018 season, Gibson acknowledges his side needs to concede fewer points and work on defence. The fitness base is there as a result of the work from 12 months ago; although Gibson seems to take it as a sign more conditioning is needed when he learns Mason and prop Shambeckler Vui both agree this year's preseason may not be quite as brutal as the last. They can't be too comfortable, of course.

"Last year we had a real determined focus to be a lot fitter," Gibson says. "This year, it's more around trying to fight longer; repeat effort and really train our mindset that we don't want to concede. And that means a little less fitness because we believe that fitness base is there, and just putting our focus into other areas."

The Waratahs have been busy off the field, too. Mason is only a couple of weeks returned from a trip to Narrabri, in northern NSW, for the Batyr Get Talkin' Tour alongside backline teammate and fellow country boy Alex Newsome.

"There's a real opportunity for us to showcase our game and take that to the region, and I think the boys are really excited about that," Gibson says. "It's a great opportunity for us as a team and an organisation, and also in terms of creating that culture, we've got a number of things [we're doing]."

But it's a trip to the Starlight Foundation that will really test this group.

"Next Tuesday's visit to Starlight will be a real highlight for us. We've been practicing our singing for the last four weeks and I'm sure the boys are fired up for that. And then next week we're going on a bit of a walk through the Blue Mountains, retracing the steps of some of our former settlers.

On the Starlight visit, Mason adds: "I'm not that good on the vocals myself. But Harry Johnson-Holmes loves it, he reckons he hates it but he really does love a spotlight and he really gets around that. But yeah we're there next week for the Christmas carols."

When ESPN returns to Daceyville in late January, the Waratahs are at full complement, their Wallabies back on the training paddock after a little extra time off.

If Mason is relatively new to the training paddock, then Sekope Kepu is one of the old dogs. With more than 10 preseasons under his belt, the veteran prop knows all too well just how much this time of year can hurt.

"Preseason is always tough but I must say as you're getting older it is a bit tougher, it's a bit harder to condition the body into the nick you want it to be in," Kepu tells ESPN. "It's about doing a little bit here and there on the break; but it's hot, it's always muggy, there's always plenty of running. But I think, off the back of last year, just listening to my body a bit more and being a bit smarter as well as pushing myself, and communicating with the trainers and coaches, I feel like I'm getting that balance right this year.

"Going off last year, we've sort of worked toward a bit more ball work and skills, and that's the way forward; you can run a straight line and do as much straight-line running [as you want] but as soon as you get into drills and balls are involved, there's a lot of thinking, there's a lot of decisions you need to make, and the skills of actually executing catch-pass can get quite difficult. So we've moved towards that a little bit this're still doing the straight-line stuff, but there's a massive focus [on game training] and I think it's going to work wonders this year in the way we want to play.

"So there hasn't been too many hills this year and I'm happy with that. I can still remember back, my very first preseason we did the sand dunes in Cronulla - thank goodness I haven't been back there in a little while."

Off the field, the Waratahs find themselves drawn into the social media storm engulfing the NRL as videos showing Kurtley Beale in the presence of alleged illicit drug taking. Rugby Australia decides not to sanction Beale as the videos were reportedly from 2015 and 2016, and Beale is not involved in the substance abuse.

Before the videos of Beale emerged, Gibson had acknowledged the Waratahs had to keep educating its players and that errors in judgement weren't the monopoly of the NRL. During the off- and preseason, players have extra time on their hands; the lack of a clearly defined training week can present a problem.

"We're not immune to those behaviours, part of the expectation that we do have here with our players is making sure that they're real gentlemen and it's something we've talked a lot about, and something that we're very proud about," Gibson said. "But certainly there are going to be challenges for us this season and it's how we cope with that and respond to it."

A big on-field challenge is welcoming the club's Wallabies back onto the training paddock. Down a week's preparation on last season, no moment can be wasted.

"It is [tough] but you can't sort of hang back, you've got to match that pace and push yourself because in some way you've got to lead the way as well," Kepu says of his role as a returning Wallaby. "Look I've been very happy and surprised by the way the guys have carried themselves, and the pace that they've been training at, has really impressed me. And that's only pushed me to try and keep up, especially the young props coming through and that's always going to be a challenge. But they've really impressed me and it's a snowball effect with everybody that's come back, I think, and it's very encouraging for us to push hard and to keep those standards."

Kepu and the majority of the Waratahs' other Wallabies play no part in either of the club's two preseason trials. NSW are beaten 52-38 by the Highlanders in Queenstown before a clash with the Brumbies in Goulburn finishes in 34-28, but only after two late tries add some respectability to the scoreline.

It's hardly the ideal build-up ahead of their season opener against the Hurricanes at Brookvale Oval, one of four different venues the Waratahs will host games at during 2019, but with the likes of skipper Hooper, Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Israel Folau, Tom Robertson and Beale still to come back, all is not lost, either.

Boasting a one-year contract extension himself, Gibson is bullish about the team's chances in 2019 and excited by what could lie further into the future.

"The players really love being here, we've created a really excellent environment," he says when asked about the air of positivity around the Waratahs in 2019. "It feels like we're a second-year program this year; we've not changed a lot on our roster, we've not changed a great deal with our management and our staff, so we feel like we're a year on from where we have been.

"I think that's a real positive for us. And you can see growth in our players and also growth in the strength of our coaching staff."

The brutal reality is, though, any preseason positivity can be snuffed out in the blink of an eye. Lose too many of their opening fixtures, and the Waratahs will be chasing their tails.

In a season full of expectation, and the glare of the Super Rugby spotlight, there are few places for the Waratahs to hide.

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