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Two-horse race for vital Tahs head role as standoff beckons over displaced Rebels

Twelve months out from hosting the British and Irish Lions and the Waratahs are in no-man’s land, but the NSW board will try to rectify their shambolic planning ahead of 2025 by naming a head of performance by week’s end.

It’s believed former Wallaby and Rebels general manager Nick Stiles, as well as ex-Fiji international turned Wallabies slayer and Flying Fijians coach Simon Raiwalui, are the two front-runners.

It’s understood Harlequins director of performance Billy Millard withdrew from consideration while Andy Friend couldn’t commit to a full-time role.

Both Stiles and Raiwalui held interviews last week, where they presented to Rugby Australia director of high performance Peter Horne, Waratahs chief executive Paul Doorn as well as high performance specialist Mike McGovern.

Both former internationals have a case to make.

Under Stiles, the Rebels made the finals for the first time and the former prop’s leadership, as well as head coach Kevin Foote, proved pivotal in the squad staying tight in testing circumstances.

Nick Stiles (L) helped put together the Rebels’ most successful side ever. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Stiles also put together one of the strongest squads in Australia over the space of three years.

If Stiles were to go to the Waratahs, several Rebels players, including Taniela Tupou, wouldn’t hesitate in following him.

For a franchise with just 21 players contracted for 2025 that isn’t anything to sneeze about, especially given Stiles’ proven record of building a squad.

Raiwalui, too, has one of the most impressive rugby records since transitioning as a player.

The former Manly Marlins back-rower is a product of the Sydney rugby competition and won respect wherever he’s gone, captaining Sarcens and Stade Francais.

He then was one of Michael Cheika’s strongest performers at the 2019 World Cup, before joining Fiji as their general manager.

The former back-rower then masterminded Fiji’s stunning 2023 World Cup, where after beating England in their final match before the tournament continued their historic run by toppling Eddie Jones’ Wallabies in Saint Etienne.

The Flying Fijians ultimately fell just short of beating England in the quarter-finals.

Since then, Raiwalui has taken a place with World Rugby, the same organisation Horne and Schmidt have come from in recent times.

But whether he has the acumen around contract managing and building a list remains to be seen.

Simon Raiwalu oversaw the Flying Fijians’ run to the World Cup quarter-finals in 2023, toppling the Wallabies along the way. (Photo by Michael Steele – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

It’s believed a decision will be made by Thursday, with the Waratahs conscious that the clock is ticking.

Already they’re well behind the eight-ball, with the list a shadow of the championship winning side from 2014.

The departures of Ned Hanigan and Lachie Swinton and possibly Jed Holloway, who is trying to find a way out of his last year with the Waratahs, has left the Waratahs short of punch and fire power in the back five forwards.

Midfielders Izaia Perese, Mosese Tuipulotu and Harry Wilson have also departed, with Wallabies regular Andrew Kellaway and NRL sensation Joseph Suaalii the side’s only big name recruits.

The Waratahs hope that they can flesh out their squad by bringing in lost Rebels.

But as the Western Force experience showed in 2017-18, that is fraught with danger.

After all, cultures aren’t built overnight.

Just as pertinent is who is footing the bill and do the players want to go to the Waratahs?

NSW Waratahs CEO Paul Doorn and Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh at Daceyville on November 14, 2023. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

While Rugby Australia recently asked players their preferred destinations, the governing body is strongly pushing many to the Waratahs.

The Roar has learned of several players who want to join the Reds, but Les Kiss’ program is unlikely to be able to fit them under the $5.5 million salary cap.

The Brumbies, too, don’t have much wriggle room in their salary cap. Ditto the Force.

At present, RA is asking the Super Rugby franchises to cover 50 per cent of the salaries of those who end up as one of the remaining four sides.

Only the Waratahs, who have a squad to fill, can house the majority of the players.

But several don’t want to go.

Champions a decade ago, the Waratahs finished last in 2024 and have a lot of catching up to do ahead of 2025. (Photo by Luis Veniegra/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The reasons are obvious: the Waratahs don’t have a head coach yet, finished rock bottom on the Super Rugby standings and Sydney is the most expensive city in the country to live in.

Just like in 2018, where former Force back Robbie Coleman was paid handsomely to play in the Shute Shield, it could lead to a standoff, with no player contracted through to 2025 mandatorily needing to go to a certain franchise.

Even if they do go to the Waratahs, will they enjoy it?

Off the back of a horrible 2024 campaign, where the Rebels lived in limbo, another year of angst could be enough to see several players head overseas.

It’s led to many asking how by the end of June RA don’t have a solution to who is paying for the misplaced Rebels.

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