Waratahs' culture in question as Rob Penney faces the heat in 2021

Given little hope of success in the upcoming Super Rugby AU season, the NSW Waratahs are already firmly under the spotlight before a ball has even been kicked after several former players hit out at a flagging culture at the club.

Coach Rob Penney also finds himself under pressure after a poor first season in charge, with one report even suggesting the coach would have been sacked unless the Waratahs won their final match of 2020.

Joining the club after the loss of several experienced Wallabies stars, such as Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps and Sekope Kepu, Penney was tasked with taking the team in a new direction. They would go on to win just five games from 14 throughout a COVID-hit 2020 season and finish fourth out of five teams in Australia's domestic competition, while rumours swirled of tension in the ranks as the season wore on.

One former player to raise concerns was Jed Holloway, who was dumped by the club at the end of the 2020 season having played no part in Super Rugby AU. He told ESPN the Waratahs had struggled to maintain their culture since the end of their drought-breaking 2014 Super Rugby triumph.

"Look, Sydney's a big place, you've got to understand that everyone has their own agendas away from football," Holloway told ESPN. "That's what I've kind of realised going to places like Munster and even Nagoya.

"It's a challenge for the playing group or management to find that balance where they can have a great culture and also give guys the break away from footy as well. It's an ongoing thing and it's a fine line.

"The thing that I saw and I found hard to get around is, I saw how it all worked and the culture in 2014 and the way it moved away from that culture. I guess it's just trying to find the right consistency and the right way to go about that. Don't get me wrong, I didn't go about it the right way a lot of the time, but I guess it's a challenge for the Waratahs to find a balance going forward in such a busy city like Sydney."

Holloway's comments come on the back of those made by prop Tom Robertson, who headed to Perth to join the Force during the offseason.

Robertson said he had not been happy at the Waratahs, again raising questions of team culture and rifts within the playing and coaching ranks.

"I wasn't that happy at the Waratahs to be honest," Robertson said. "I was considering staying there for another two years, but in the end the upside to the Force was too big to ignore.

"There's a lot of off-field issues at the Waratahs. I love the players there. The player group is amazing. But just coming over here, it's a breath of fresh air."

When ESPN questioned Holloway on Robertson's comments, he said Robertson was just speaking his truth.

"I wasn't [surprised by his comments], Throbba [Tom Robertson] I guess was just speaking the truth there," he said.

"In terms of off field issues, there's not anything with the playing group or disconnect, but I guess it's just more so around culture and the struggles with that we kind of had there and the challenge that it is.

"I guess there wasn't many of the boys left from the 2018 year where we were quite successful and any time you have a decent amount of success and then you aren't winning you're always trying to look for how to do it and as players we probably weren't going about it the best way, we were probably a bit negative and probably not setting the best standard for ourselves as well.

"I guess that's what he's talking about in terms of off-field issues, just trying to find that balance between footy and the best sort of game plan and stuff like that."

But Waratahs backrower Jack Dempsey -- who looms as the side's most experienced player in 2021 -- denied the tension within the squad last season was anything more than a team feeling the pressure after a poor start to their campaign.

"When we're talking about a high contact sport in a highly competitive environment and you're not getting the results you wanted, there's always going to be tension," Dempsey told ESPN.

"There was a lot of disappointment at the start of the year with the struggles to get the ball rolling; there was new coaching staff, new players, all the growing pains which are part of rebuilding a championship team, which is what we're trying to do here."

Waratahs CEO Paul Doorn, meanwhile, agreed it had been difficult building a culture in 2020, both given the coronavirus interruptions and the exodus of so many senior players the year before.

Doorn said it was up to the Waratahs' new breed of rising stars to help bring the squad together alongside new skipper Jake Gordon.

"Managing rosters is always a challenge, but I think if you overlay the global game, it's one of the strengths of the game; people can travel anywhere in the game and play," Doorn told ESPN.

"So you've always got that risk, if you like, but also the opportunity to give people exposure. So many of our young kids have been overseas and trained and played somewhere and come back, they might not be in the Waratahs squad at the moment, but it's good for rugby to think about is as a global game. The downside of it is that you will lose players.

"So yeah we've lost some people but we know that the young kids, and particularly these kids that have had the chance to go to the Wallabies camp, what we've lost in skills and in experience, I think we're hoping that the experience that they've had from the Wallaby camp will be, and already has, been infectious across the squad.

"[And] Jake's rapport with the players and the coaching staff is amazing. We've had some really outstanding leaders in the past, so this is an opportunity for him to shine, most definitely. He's got the natural ability to lead on the field, just because of the role he plays and his personality, and he gets to take that to the next level, which we as a business and a coaching staff are really excited about."

Gordon himself is adamant the Waratahs are title contenders in 2021 and have a blueprint for success under Penney.

"We want to win. We wouldn't do preseason or train this hard to come second," Gordon said. "If we perform every week, we'll win the competition. I don't think we are in a position where we can go in and out of games.

"The way we want to play and the blueprint we have, we can beat the best. I think the last four rounds of that Super Rugby AU competition was really how we want to play; the team we had we got some great results from that."

Doorn is also standing behind Penney, the chief executive expecting improved results on the paddock in 2021.

"Yeah, 100 percent full confidence in the coach," Doorn told ESPN. "Like all businesses we do our end-of-season reviews, we look at what we need to do differently next year. So we've got some really strong metrics around what we'd like to achieve this year.

"But the coaching staff, not just Rob at all, the coaching staff, have our full support and, yeah, bring it on. The proof will be in the pudding."