NSW Waratahs: Who should replace Rob Penney as coach?

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Where was Waratahs' succession planning? (2:58)

As the fallout from the Waratahs' sacking of Rob Penney continues, the ESPN Scrum Reset crew dig into the club's failed recruitment and retention. (2:58)

The Waratahs are in free fall and the situation is unlikely to get any easier over the remaining weeks of Super Rugby AU - and who knows how ugly things might get if the trans-Tasman series against New Zealand's five franchises proceeds from May 15.

Sunday's sacking of head coach Rob Penney -- after an 0-5 start to the season -- was in no way a shock, but it hasn't spared the franchise and the under-fire NSW Rugby board widespread supporter backlash.

Brisbane's snap three-day lockdown due to a COVID-19 breakout may just spare the board further embarrassment, and the Waratahs themselves likely even greater thrashings, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set to make a call on a trans-Tasman travel bubble next week.

Given Ardern's cautious roadmap on the subject to date, it's likely the outbreak in Queensland could derail the trans-Tasman series - at least in its original format.

Instigating a change of fortunes in Sydney will, in the short term, be the role of assistant coaches-turned co-coaches Chris Whittaker and Jason Gilmore, who both could be in the running for the role fulltime, too.

One man who won't be applying for the role from 2022 is another former NSW assistant, Simon Cron, after the Kiwi recommitted to Toyota Verblitz for a further season. The extension granted to Daryl Gibson in 2019 -- which the New Zealander then withdrew from -- is at the top of what is a lengthy list of dumbfounding moves NSW Rugby has made in recent times, as it robbed the franchise of an easy succession plan with Cron.

But the situation isn't as clear for another Shute Shield-winning coach in Darren Coleman. The former Warringah and Gordon boss didn't respond to a text message from ESPN asking whether he could be persuaded home from Major League Rugby, where he has already led fledgling franchise LA Giltinis to a 2-0 start.

Earlier this year, Giltinis assistant and former Waratahs back-rower Stephen Hoiles revealed Coleman's disappointment at being overlooked for the NSW job when Penney was originally appointed in 2019.

"He's [Coleman] a pretty upfront and honest type of guy, and I think he was pretty disappointed that he missed out on that Waratahs job a couple of years ago," Hoiles told ESPN.

"And since he took Gordon to that premiership, which was his second with two clubs in four or so years, there's definitely been some interest there and I know that there was some more interest from other Super sides and there still should be and there would be. So yeah he's definitely capable of coaching at that level."

Coleman had moved around the Shute Shield before taking off for Los Angeles, first enjoying success with a Warringah side that had been struggling to really contend at the top end of the Shute Shield.

"DC comes with a really good rugby program, he knows what he wants to get out of his players; he knows what he wants to do and he just goes about implementing that. And the way he implemented it, he slowly just drip-fed it to all the boys," Sam Ward, Warringah's 2017 Grand Final-winning captain, told ESPN.

"His picture of what he wanted for us, everyone got on board really quickly with that. With some coaches it does take a little bit of time, but for us we were able to get on board pretty quickly to go from being an alright team to a really good team in a relatively short time. And you can see that with what he did with Gordon as well."

Ward's personal story from Warringah's Shute Shield 2017 is also one of great sadness after his brother, Lachlan, collapsed and died during a fifth-grade match earlier in the year.

Supporting other claims that Coleman was very much a "players' coach", Ward said the now LA Giltinis boss played a part in helping both he and his Rats teammates through that hugely difficult time.

"He's massive on culture and building a special place, and I think that's definitely something that he can cultivate very well. I obviously have a good personal relationship with him just from him being my coach," Ward said.

"He was very close to me, he constantly checked in with me, asked how I was doing [following the loss of Lachlan]; but he did that with a lot of the players as well.

"He allowed me some space if I needed space; but generally speaking the culture that he was fostering around the club you just wanted to be around it. So taking time away was obviously necessary for me initially, but it [the club] was only ever a place that I wanted to be.

"So in that sense he's great at looking after his players and making you feel like you're comfortable, but also at the same time he's going to push you. Even if I was doing something right he would still ride me on it but you want that in the end as a footy coach.

"So he was an ear when you needed it but then hard on us when he wanted more from us. But it was just because he knew we had more in us."

After winning the title in 2017 and finishing runners-up again the following year, Coleman then headed for Gordon where he ended the club's 24-year drought for a Shute Shield title.

Having been overlooked by the Wallabies in 2020, Waratahs back-rower Jack Dempsey, who will head to Scotland to join Glasgow later this year, quickly settled into life under Coleman at Gordon.

"DC in particular is very much a players' coach, he's one of those guys. I had nothing to do with him until the Gordon campaign [but] he's very likeable, he's very easy to play for," Dempsey told ESPN.

And that's the theme that keeps popping up with Coleman, that he has the ability to connect with players on a personal level.

Elsewhere the names Michael Cheika, John Manenti and even Eddie Jones have been sprouted as possible coaching solutions to the Waratahs crisis.

Jones, for one, can likely be scrubbed as it appears the Rugby Football Union will continue to back the Australian despite England's poor Six Nations campaign when they finished fifth.

Cheika, meanwhile has also been linked with a return to the Waratahs and while he is yet to address the speculation publicly, he has no formal coaching commitments beyond the Rugby League World Cup in England later this year when he will coach Lebanon.

But Cheika has expressed a desire to again coach the Wallabies and may well see the Waratahs as a stepping stone to achieving a goal that to many looks nothing short of a pipedream.

Cheika's ability to turn teams around in the short-term is his strength -- he did it both with the Waratahs and Wallabies -- but is that what NSW needs this time around?

While he wasn't asked about his potential interest in the role directly, Cheika's comments about Penney, and not the NSW Rugby board, may well have revealed his future intentions.

"I don't think it's a scapegoat play at all," Cheika told a Stan Sport special. "I think that in the professional game the coach is in charge. You know your circumstances, you try and modify them, you try and change them. It's not a personal slant, it doesn't mean you're a bad person if you get the bullet.

"You take responsibility for the team that you coach. You do your absolute best to get them there. You have to have skin in the game to make the changes necessary to get them to the point that you agree with your organisation at the start when you come in. Maybe he hasn't met the criteria of what they want."

Manenti, meanwhile, is another proven coach at Shute Shield level who will lead Australia's women's sevens team, the defending Olympic champions, to the Tokyo Games in just four months' time.

The three-time Shute Shield-winning coach has declared his interest in the Waratahs role, telling foxsports.com.au earlier this week he would "love to be able to do something to improve the current situation" at the club.

He may yet be the only viable option -- at least one to declare his interest in the role -- with Cron having confirmed he is staying in Japan and Coleman at this stage officially signed to the Giltinis through 2022.

Whatever the decision, it's one the NSW Rugby board and chief executive Paul Doorn simply must get right. For another season like the one currently unfolding in Sydney this year will make the already gaping hole even harder to climb out of, and do further damage to the nation's biggest rugby market.