'No place I'd rather be': Ben Donaldson wants to continue Waratahs' rebuild

Waratahs' young gun Ben Donaldson has made his mark at fly-half since his run-on debut, happily taking on the pressure of leading and reviving his struggling side as he eyes the longer-term assignment of rebuilding a franchise.

Labelled the 'baby Tahs' ahead of the 2021 season, NSW entered Super Rugby AU [SRAU] with a new captain in Jake Gordon and 21-year-old Will Harrison as their playmaker after more than 1800 caps worth of experience left the club over the past two years.

While expectations for their season were low, a franchise record 11 straight losses weren't envisioned, neither was sensationally sacking coach Rob Penney five games into the year. Despite this, there has been promising green shoots in the gloom, highlighted by Donaldson's rise in the No. 10 jersey.

Donaldson earned his run-on debut in Round nine of SRAU after Harrison was sidelined with a hamstring injury, the 22-year-old almost leading the Waratahs to their first win of the year before the Force's Domingo Miotti kicked a penalty in the 85th minute to deny the Waratahs victory.

With little time to find his feet at Super Rugby level, Donaldson shone in the hotseat.

"It was obviously pretty tough; with the results it's been tough on everyone this year," Donaldson told ESPN. "I was injured at the start of the year and I just worked really hard with the coaches on my core skills, so whenever my shot came I knew I'd be ready.

"It's a good group of boys here as well; some good older heads, some good leaders who really backed me as well, so I think that really helped playing that first game. The past couple of games I feel like I've put out some pretty good performances, but now we've got to transfer that into team wins [because] that's really what we're here for - to win games."

Claiming the No. 10 jersey as his own while Harrison was sidelined, Donaldson was rewarded for his mature performances, retaining the role after his best mate recovered from injury, starting against the Blues in Auckland before a groin injury ended his day early against Crusaders in Wollongong on Saturday.

Donaldson remains in doubt for this weekend's trip to Dunedin to face the Highlanders.

Regardless, he has embraced the challenge of leading the Tahs around, building a composed combination with his halves partner and skipper, Jake Gordon.

"There's obviously pressure, but I take that in my stride; if you're a nine or a 10 you take that pressure, you want to have it and you want to win games for your team. We've got Jake at halfback who's a really good leader, he helps out a lot.

"As a 10, as a fly-half you always feel the pressure; if you lose games you feel like you could have done more because you're the one leading the team around the park, you could have made a different decision. But it's all great learning. I haven't played a whole heap of games in my career so they're all great learnings and hopefully we can use them and make some wins come in the next few games."

One of the most inexperienced sides in the Trans-Tasman competition, the Waratahs have an average age of just 24-years-old following a high turnover of experienced stars including Michael Hooper [playing sabbatical], Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley and Ned Hanigan since 2019.

The defection of so much talent has been reflected in the performances in 2021 with NSW suffering record-breaking losses in their opening two matches of SR AU and heavy losses in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

But the franchise rebuild is well and truly underway with young guns such as Harrison, Angus Bell, Carlo Tizzano, Will Harris and Mark Nawaqanitawase all into their second Super Rugby seasons. While the results haven't gone their way, the impressive individual performances of some of his younger teammates has Donaldson hoping to see the rebuild through to brighter days.

"Hopefully, that's the plan," Donaldson told ESPN. "I'd love to be here, at the moment there's no place I'd rather be to be honest. Although we are losing, it's a great club, it's a great bunch of boys, great coaching group we have at the moment - I'd love to stay here for the next couple of years. I'd love to try and gain some success and take the boys to the top.

"Everyone is saying it's a rebuilding phase -- which it is -- but we don't really want to use that term. We want to win games, and as you say there is a lot of young lads here who are still signed and who'll still be at the club over the next two or three years, which is a great positive for the club.

"Everyone's just taking a lot of learnings out of these games, although we haven't won many, hopefully we do get a couple of wins at the back end of this year and then into the next couple of years we take those learnings as we grow and play some more games and really make the Waratahs a powerhouse again."

Ahead of the 2021 season, questions had been raised on the culture surrounding the team after former teammates Jed Holloway and Tom Robertson spoke out about tension between the playing group and coaching staff. If tensions in the team were already high ahead of the season, an 11-game winless run certainly wouldn't be helping the matter, but the Randwick-raised talent paints a more positive picture.

"My time here I've had no dramas with the culture, no drama with the boys; everything's been really positive," Donaldson told ESPN. "Obviously everyone's different, everyone see's things in different ways, but I think one thing we've spoken about as a group is that even though we're losing we're still staying as a really tight knit group, and if we weren't that tight a lot of things probably could have fallen apart by now.

"I feel like that we're such a tight-knit group and we're learning every week on the run, and I think that could be a massive positive heading into the next year and the next couple of years as well."

While his mind remains firmly on the task of helping turn the Waratahs' fortunes around, Donaldson has even higher aspirations as he dreams of green and gold. Playing alongside Brumbies star Noah Lolesio and Harrison in the 2019 Junior Wallabies side - the fly-half wants his name to be added to the Test selection mix.

"100 percent," Donaldson said. "Obviously we're all the same age, we all played [Australian] Schoolboys together, played Under 20s together and my main goal is to make the Wallabies - whenever that may be.

"I'd love to be in those conversations, 100 percent. Honestly I've just got to keep playing consistent footy, try and keep my starting position here and I think that stuff will do that talking for itself."