Mack Mason talks Waratahs, club culture, current crisis & Major League Rugby move

Mack Mason has no regrets from his time at the Waratahs.

Frustrations? Sure. But nothing foreign to those that any professional rugby player -- or sportsperson -- can experience at one time or another; he understands they are part of the game.

But he also has an insider's perspective of the build-up to the crisis that has engulfed the Waratahs at this current juncture, having been on the end of several tough management decisions himself, and having also witnessed other calls first-hand as they were made above and around him.

For a player that starred on debut against the Crusaders in 2017 -- yes, the then 21-year-old even earning high praise from late ESPN scribe Greg Growden -- and was later invited to a Wallabies training camp, the slide to virtual rugby obscurity is somewhat hard to believe.

But he recalls that sunny Sydney Sunday afternoon against the kings of Super Rugby with fondness, even if it ended in a 41-22 defeat.

"Yeah, Nard [Bernard Foley], he doesn't have too many brain cells as it is and he kept getting head knocks, so they threw Bryce [Hegarty] in there for a bit and then I got my crack against the Crusaders," Mason told ESPN of the events that led to his debut.

"I remember the game, it was a Sunday afternoon game and one of the biggest crowds we had that year; it was just good to play. We lost that game but we did give it a fair nudge, and it was just a special time in my career really, making my debut with some ridiculously good players."

Mason had joined the Waratahs for the 2017 season under the recruitment of then General Manager Tim Rapp -- who departed the NSW before the current Super Rugby AU season kicked off -- and settled into Sydney seamlessly.

He says the Waratahs environment at that time was great; filled with Wallabies, the team enjoyed a level of success while Mason revealed he was a huge fan of then-backs coach Chris Malone.

Despite his impressive maiden Super Rugby start, Mason was barely sighted again. With Bernard Foley free of concussion, Mason was never really given the chance to add to his experience and was forced back to Shute Shield rugby to get the minutes he says he was told he needed.

"It was pretty early for me at the Waratahs then, and I knew I would have to wait my time behind Nard [Foley] for a bit there, as he was the Wallabies fly-half then," Mason told ESPN. "There was chat around getting more minutes off the bench but it never really arose, and I never really got a chance again that year [2017].

"I think I ended up playing against the Force in the last game before they left Super Rugby; I think I only played two games that year. But in saying that, it was my debut year, I am a fly-half and I don't really play many other positions.

"But there were a few tough days and around the [coaches'] messaging, you are probably told certain things. I was told I'd get a bit more time and that I needed the experience [to play]. But the one way you get experience is by playing more football; so Shute Shield grew my experience in the game, just playing against men for a couple of years, and I really enjoyed my time down at Easts playing under Pauli [Pauliasi Taumoepeau] and with a lot of good fellas.

"I learnt more playing in those games than going to training every day [at the Waratahs] at the backend."

Mason did eventually make his return to the sky blue jersey. But it was virtually the antithesis of his experience against the Crusaders two years earlier.

"Personally, I felt like I got thrown under the bus a bit, I was made to be a bit of a scapegoat for that one," Mason reflected on the 31-29 loss to the Sunwolves in Newcastle in 2019.

"But that's sort of the way it is, I guess, you're playing in the pivotal position and you've got to wear the criticism on your chest a bit and go with the flow. But it was either win and no one cares and you go onto next week, or [you lose] and they look for a reason why.

"I think I played 55 minutes or 60 minutes and then got hooked, but there's not too much I remember about that game and I probably don't want to remember too much to be honest either."

One of the current criticisms of the Waratahs was the club's management of Daryl Gibson's 2020 contract extension before the 2019 season had even begun, a decision the former NSW coach then back flipped on just five months later.

It ultimately cost them the long-term services of then-assistant coach Simon Cron. Like many other Waratahs players, Mason was a huge supporter of the Kiwi.

"I was a massive fan of Cronny, I thought the club would go in the way of signing him as the head coach," he told ESPN. "After what he had done at Norths [in Shute Shield] I thought he had massive potential, he's a great people manager around players but also some of his drills in training were top notch.

"He really prepared you for the game whereas other coaches sit back. I was trying to push my case to get a start, so it was more about the drills that we did at training and the 15-on-15 when myself and some of the boys who weren't playing were able to push their claim when they weren't in the team every week."

Gibson's change of heart ultimately left the Waratahs in a massive hole, with then-chief executive Andrew Hore later unveiling current coach Rob Penney in Japan midway through the 2019 World Cup.

By the time Penney lobbed in Sydney in December there was little time to assess the Waratahs' roster, nor impart his style of play on the squad before the season began on February 1, 2020.

Mason says Penney had declared the No. 10 jersey open after first arriving, but when he picked up an injury ahead of a preseason trial and then COVID hit, he was left in no uncertain terms about his future at the club.

"I never really had too much to do with Rob. He obviously came at the backend of 2019 and there was obviously a conversation that [fly-half] was open and that we'd be fighting it out.

"I played the first trial of [2020] against the Highlanders, and then we went up to Dalby to face the Reds and I injured my groin in the warm-up. But I was still able to play and then it just went in the game, so that was not the best luck.

"And then I went home [to Queensland] when COVID happened, which the club said to do because it was a bit of the unknown and they said you should see your families. So I went up to home and was waiting for a phone call to come back down and to see what was going on, I was still training at the time, but didn't really know what the plans were with the club and where we were going.

"And then Rob called me one day and said 'mate, we're going in a different direction and this is how it is'."

The make-up of the Waratahs squad has been a hot topic following their 0-3 start to the season -- including record losses to the Reds and Brumbies -- with player retention and recruitment firmly in the spotlight.

NSW certainly have a talented No. 10 in Will Harrison and the 21-year-old is clearly the man Penney sees as the long-term option as playmaker. Harrison was also a part of the Wallabies' 46-man squad last season.

But an argument could be made that Mason was worth keeping onboard, too, or certainly that he should have earlier been given greater opportunities under Gibson so that when he was eventually handed a start, it wasn't the deer-in-the-headlights situation that unfolded as it did against the Sunwolves.

For his part, Mason holds no grudges.

"It's definitely frustrating. I think it just comes down to certain coaches believing in you, really," he told ESPN. "The only thing I craved was probably a little bit more opportunity at that level; you can only test yourself in Shute Shield so much every week, obviously there are the top teams and they're really good to test yourself against, but when you're striving to be better and to be in that Super Rugby environment you've got to play week in, week out.

"So that's probably the one big thing that I was mainly frustrated with, that they didn't have that belief that I could steer the team around or that I could get them to a premiership or the finals. But that all comes down to the coach's perspective and where they're headed as an organisation."

Where Mason has headed is Major League Rugby in the United States.

With his future unknown in 2020, and no real offers from any other Australian Super Rugby franchises, the chance for a fresh start Stateside was one he couldn't turn down.

Signed to the Austin Gilgronis where there is some familiarity in coaches Mark Gerrard and Sam Harris, and a handful of Australian teammates, Mason has settled into life in Texas and, as of the weekend, had his first official hit-out in a preseason trial.

"Coming over I didn't know what to expect, but the quality of rugby was a lot higher than I expected," Mason said. "The skill level, the knowledge of the game and also the raw athletes; some of these boys are just insane in how they change direction, they can jump onto one foot without any preparation.

"So it's definitely insane some of the talent these local American boys have, and if you look across the MLR at all the signings that are happening now; at Austin we have Hugh Roach who I played with at the Tahs, Maclean Jones, there's a few others who have played high level Super Rugby or overseas.

"And I think the LA team have just announced Matt Giteau as well. So it's really exciting getting to play against those sorts of guys, it can only grow the competition the more they get these bigger names and it will shine a light on rugby in America."

Analysing the situation with what has happened at the Waratahs, Major League Rugby could be seen as another threat to Australia's talent pyramid; that players on the fringes of Super Rugby squads or proven Shute Shield performers could be further stripped out of Australia's player pool.

But Mason says a different view could also be taken, even though MLR is still very much in its infancy in just its fourth season.

"I don't think it's too much of a concern for Australian rugby, I think they just have to watch the competition," he said. "Obviously they haven't selected a few of those players who have been in Shute Shield for a few years, who are on the fringe of Super Rugby, and they get the opportunity to come over here and play professionally for the year and they won't really push away that chance when it's sitting at their doorstep.

"But that's not too say that they can't come over here into a professional system for two or three years and then have the opportunity to go back into the Australian environment and play Super Rugby.

"So it probably depends on which way they look at it; they could look at it as America is poaching some of the fringe talent or developing them for a couple of years when they've missed out on the systems in Australia."

Does the candle for a Super Rugby return, or something greater still, continue to burn then?

"I definitely still have that desire to push back through, mainly for that Wallabies jersey, but for the time being I want to live in the now and play some good footy over here (in Austin) and not worry about any external pressures," Mason told ESPN.

"The MLR is still quite a fresh comp over here and Americans are trying to grasp the sport, so it's more trying to live day-by-day instead of thinking about all that other stuff. If I get the chance to go back, I'll definitely have a look at it. But for now I'm over here."