Humble Carraro relishing centre stage
Photo: SPA Images
Talk to any of the current Waratahs players and they’ll be keen to point out the fact that they are very much a squad, a tight knit group all pulling in the same direction and with the same goals. Each one helping, pushing and driving the others along for the benefit of the team, irrespective of their relative status within it’s framework.
Personal gains are firmly put to one side for the betterment of the team and without that level of selflessness and dedication to the cause, the Tahs culture fostered by Michael Cheika’s coaching team and captain Dave Dennis, simply wouldn’t function.
To that end, guys like Matt Carraro are invaluable. Now 30-years-old, the Gosford born centre/winger returned to the Waratahs for a second stint last season after four years plying his trade in Europe with Bath and Montpellier. With the embarrassment of Wallaby riches already on board in the Tahs backline, he arrived knowing that his chances of regular football would likely be limited but an opportunity to return to his home state and play under Cheika was too good to refuse.
However, he knuckled down, gave of his best each and every day and was rewarded with 12 appearances, 10 off the bench and two starts against the Lions and the Hurricanes, scoring a try in a match that many regard as the turning point in the Waratahs’ season as it kickstarted an unbeaten nine match run to the title.
2015 saw Carraro start on the bench in the season opener against the Force but a mystery knee injury to Adam Ashley-Cooper saw him promoted to the first XV for round four and he has revelled in the opportunity ever since. He averages five tackles per match, the same as Will Skelton; is 10th in Super Rugby for average clean breaks per match and with one try and three assists in five games – only Israel Folau, Sonny Bill Williams, Nic White and Willie le Roux have conjured up more – he has played an integral role in helping the Tahs rediscover last year’s mojo following a slow start.
For the humble Carraro, it’s very much a case of living the moment.
“I just try to make the most of every minute,” he told Rugby News earlier this week. “Obviously, with Adam being injured, it’s given me a great opportunity to get some game time and start a few matches in a row, which I’ve never really done for the Waratahs, so it’s been a great chance for me. I know Adam’s going to be back there soon, the team’s missing him, so for me, I may not have that many chances left so I have to make the most of it.”
Having exceeded his expectations in 2014, his pre-season ambitions for this year were similarly pragmatic. Whilst it’s a given that he craves a regular starting spot, it’s all about what he can do for the team above anything else.
“I was very much of the same mindset as last year, just enjoy every minute you can get, but with potentially a bit more confidence because I’d had so much game time and so many games off the bench. Our squad’s barely changed since last season so I couldn’t really come in and say I expected to start all year because I’ve got a couple of Wallabies in front of me.
“When Adam does return, that will hopefully see me back on the bench at least but you never really know what’s going to happen so you’re always vying for a spot in the matchday 23, no matter what. Fingers crossed, we don’t get many of those injuries throughout the year and I’m still around to keep pushing these guys every week to play better footy.”
While the roles they are asked to perform within the team dynamic are obviously similar, Carraro brings a slightly different, perhaps more direct, skill set to the table than Ashley-Cooper. However, with the innovative attacking systems being deployed by assistant coach Daryl Gibson this season, when and where he gets to showcase any points of difference can change on a weekly basis.
“We all know what our team needs from each position so you work off that and then, when you can in a game, you bring the bits that you’re good at in as well,” he says. “At the moment, the backs are all playing different roles when it comes to attack and defence. For people watching us, it might spin their heads a little bit because we’re attacking in one spot and defending in the other so there’s a lot of game knowledge that goes into that to make it gel during a match.
In between his two stints with New South Wales, Carraro enjoyed four seasons in Europe, including 67 appearances for English team Bath
“I’ve played in different roles, 13 at times, on the wing at times and fullback at times but come phase play, we’re all kind of used to being in different positions for attacking moves anyway. You play what’s in front of you and hopefully, guys aren’t too selfish and you put yourself in whatever position you’re needed in at that time.”
There’s been plenty of debate lately regarding the best long-term position for Israel Folau. The star fullback has made a noticeable move into the Waratahs midfield in recent weeks and it’s paid handsome dividends as he’s carved up opposition defences and, if he isn’t actually scoring himself, created plenty of chances for those around him. For Carraro, it’s a no-brainer.
“When it comes to phase play it’s about playing what’s in front of us and attacking the opposition’s weak spots,” he explains. “Set-piece is obviously pretty structured in what we’re doing but you work around the guy’s strengths there as well so you want to get the ball into Izzy’s hands and Kurtley’s hands. You know roughly what they’re going to do but sometimes they pull things out of the bag and create things from nothing and that’s why they’re the best in the world. You’ve got pretty free range with those guys in terms of phase options.”
Being a part of his home state’s inaugural Super Rugby title, getting to work with innovative and intuitive coaches on a daily basis and pushing himself to the limits both mentally and physically, has all added up to the most rewarding rugby experience of Carraro’s career thus far.
“This last 18 months since I’ve been back I’ve probably learned the most I have in my time in rugby,” he enthuses. “When I was younger, I was definitely willing to learn but the way the game has evolved over this last couple of years and the way we’ve changed things and just getting to work off coaches like Cheik, Daryl and Nathan Grey has been fantastic.
“They’ve all got their own attributes; Daryl’s a brilliant rugby mind in the attacking sense; you could not get more detailed than Nathan Grey in defence and Cheik’s overall game plan and understanding of the game is immense, so between them it’s been full on and very intense in the learning stakes but it’s been great.”
He’s also fitter than he’s ever been.
“Our intensity in pre-season training is full on. Last year we had a 15 week block where we definitely gave it to ourselves and we got extremely fit, this year I think they tried to push 15 weeks into five and that was very tough! I was match fit at Bath because I was playing every week but general fitness wise, I’m definitely in the best shape I’ve ever been in. We’re a fit team and to play the way we want to play we’ve got to be.”
The gritty win over the Blues last Saturday earned the defending champions their fourth win from six starts. Gifted – or hamstrung, depending on your point of view – with a second bye from eight rounds this weekend, they have the chance to sit back and take stock of their situation. They currently lie second in the Australian conference and sixth on the overall ladder. How does Carraro think they are travelling?
“It was a bit up and down at the start, just results wise, but there’s definitely a good feeling in the camp,” he says. “Pre-season was really tough, I think the boys definitely pushed themselves harder than we have before and it was a bit disappointing to get done by the Force like that in the first game. It was a big downer and no-one really expected it with all the work we’d put in so it was very disappointing to start that way.
“We came back with good wins against the Rebels and the Reds, unfortunately got done by the Highlanders over there but got back on the horse with back-to-back wins over the Brumbies and the Blues. We’re putting some good things out there, there’s some glimpses of last year in terms of the way we played and the way we want to play but I guess we haven’t had the focus for the full 80 minutes yet to put that complete performance on the park.”
It goes without saying that their best performance was almost two weeks ago against the Brumbies. They fronted up physically, played the game at a rapier like pace and showed that when their attacking game is on song, it is extremely difficult for an opposition to live with them.
“I think we were building towards that performance,” says Carraro. “It wasn’t any game plan issues that caused the losses against the Force and the Highlanders, it was more a focus issue in that we couldn’t keep that style of play going throughout the match. Against the Brumbies, we really stuck to what we wanted to do, even though the second half wasn’t a great spectacle, it was tough and it wasn’t free-flowing rugby, but we got what we wanted out of that game.”
Off the back of that impressive victory, the expectation going into last weekend’s game against the bottom placed Blues, was that a bonus point win was almost a lay-down-misère. But as it transpired, the eventual 4pt win was achieved through plenty of hard yakka, grit and determination and off the back of a sterling effort from the forwards, particularly at scrum time. Carraro thought the Blues’ performance belied their lowly ladder position.
“It was a real danger game for us. They only just lost to the only unbeaten team in the comp – the Hurricanes – a couple of weeks before and I can’t understand how they haven’t won a game yet. You look at the players they’ve got it just doesn’t make sense, they’re an attacking danger right across their backline and their individual brilliance is pretty amazing so I’m surprised they haven’t got the points this year.
“Defensively we were quite good, it was just a shame that our basic skills let us down in attack. We should have scored a lot more tries than we did but we stuck to our plan and fronted up physically to come away with the win.
“This comp is so up and down, you look at last year and some of the upsets that happened and even this year, look at how well the Lions are going away from home. It’s such an intense comp that you’ve got to get yourself up every week, no matter what, whether you’re playing the champions or the team at the bottom of the ladder. You can’t afford to slip up, we already did that in round one and we can’t afford to do that again.”
A look ahead to what lies in wait for the Waratahs after their return from the bye doesn’t make for light reading. The remaining 10 games include a trip to Wellington to take on the table topping Hurricanes; the Brumbies again down in Canberra as well as the other two semi-finalists from last season’s competition – the Crusaders and Sharks – at Allianz Stadium. They also face a tricky trip to Perth on a revenge mission against the Force before heading to South Africa to take on the Lions and Cheetahs only three weeks before the finals.
It certainly looms as a tough road home if they are to match last season’s achievement, with those away fixtures looking particularly challenging. But then, tough is exactly how Carraro and co. want it.
“The Lions have been quite impressive this year, the Cheetahs are always good at home and both those games are at altitude as well,” he observes. “The Hurricanes have been on fire and we’ve got them across the ditch this year but as I said, every team has got to get up every week, you can’t be complacent.
“It’s also something to look forward to as well. If you want to be the best you’ve got to be able to beat everyone, everywhere, you can’t just rely on home form. If you don’t finish in the top two, you’re not going to play at home and you’re going to be left with a hard road to the final so you’ve got to expect to win away from home too.”
But all that’s to come. With the news this week that Adam Ashley-Cooper may be out for at least another three weeks, Carraro’s focus is on improvement, any little one percenters that can make a difference and add extra value to the team.
“I’m in a team full of Wallabies and I’ve never played at that level so I’ve got to push myself further than I’ve ever been and put those high expectations on myself to try and get closer to these guys,” he says.
“We go heavy on the technique of things so, while you might complete a tackle, you can always do it better, so defence is paramount. I’d love to push my attack with more ball in hand, my style of play is pretty direct and I’d love to evolve it to be one of those flashy wingers, but maybe that’s down the track.”
Off contract at the end of the season, he’s also keen to impress in the hopes of an extension, or, and it’s not something he wants to consider, putting himself in the shop window for other potential suitors.
“I’ll obviously put the feelers out and see if the Tahs want to keep me on or look at other avenues but at the moment, while I’m getting these starts, I’m not really thinking about much else,” he admits. “I’d love to stay at the Waratahs, obviously a few of the boys are off next year, hopefully there’s not too many more, but this is the best rugby environment I’ve ever been involved in.
“You want to be a part of that for as long as possible, as well as setting it up for the next guys coming through. Be a part of the next generation, helping them along and showing them what it’s all about and how we do things at the Waratahs.”
And it is sentiments like that which leave you with a positive feeling that the Waratahs’ current success will not be viewed as a flash in the pan with the benefit of historical hindsight in 20 years or more.
With guys like Matt Carraro on board, and the announcement this week that Daryl Gibson will take over the coaching reins from Michael Cheika at season’s end, the immediate and very near future at least, appear to be in the hands of a rather special group of custodians.
Original version first published by Rugby News on April 3rd, 2015