Injured Waratahs captain Dave Dennis still in the mix on the sidelines

SITTING IT OUT: Injury has robbed Waratahs captain Dave Dennis the chance to lead his team to a Super Rugby final. Photo: Louise Kennerley
SITTING IT OUT: Injury has robbed Waratahs captain Dave Dennis the chance to lead his team to a Super Rugby final. Photo: Louise Kennerley

The Brumbies and Sharks are the only two teams who stand between the Waratahs and a maiden Super Rugby title.

That is how Dave Dennis sees it, and the NSW captain has had too much damn time to think about it: between breakfast services at the club's Moore Park bunker and appointments with specialists to assess the surgery on his badly damaged right knee.

"Everyone's been saying the Crusaders, which I agree with in terms of their ability to score points and the way they play the game," Dennis says, his padded, braced limb outstretched and immobile.

"But the thing that could hurt us the most is a team that is really structured, like the Brumbies or Sharks, who can control possession and territory a bit better. I think that's a big threat for us."

This week it was pancakes; the week before, poached eggs and green juice. Dennis' coach Michael Cheika can see the inches piling up around his waist, but Dennis tucks in anyway because the Waratahs are a family.

"Whatever happens, Dave's going to live that with us," Cheika says.

"If we have a disappointment and don't make it, or if we have the joy of making it, I think he's going to be right at the centre of it regardless."

That is true and it is not, because as far as Dennis is concerned, if there is a trophy to lift in two weeks' time, he wants to be muddied and bloodied when he thrusts it aloft. Not fresh, not suited, not propped up by crutches.

"I was putting on a brave face, to be honest; it's a little bit of therapy," he says. "It's amazing what cracking a hundred eggs in a frying pan can do for your mental health.

"I was obviously shattered; I still am, to be honest. I enjoy playing rugby, golf and cooking. I can't play rugby or golf for the next six months so I thought I'd do a bit of cooking.

"I grew up in a great family and mum's way of showing she cared about us was cooking a nice feed. I felt that love growing up all the time. I can't show the boys how much I care about them on the field through playing, so my way of showing the boys that I love them – because I do – is to make it a bit easier when they come in of a morning."

Dennis helped build the Waratahs into the team they are this season.

After an early career blighted by two knee reconstructions, the Richmond-born flanker hit a purple patch, missing just two games in his past three seasons at NSW and earning 18 Test caps. Dennis had not missed a game in sky blue this year either until that fateful night at ANZ Stadium three weeks ago.

After leading the side from the ashes of 2012 to within spitting distance of a home semi-final, the season-ending injury rivalled Wallabies captain Stephen Moore's recent fate in the cruelty stakes.

"The change in our team is reflected a little bit in the change in Dave as well," Cheika says. "He's really worked hard on things he needed to improve in his own game, as well as learning how to be a strong captain.

"It's a shame, obviously, but out of that scarring he'll be having now is going to be reborn a stronger captain, a stronger player, a stronger person, no doubt about it."

Coach and captain had a long chat the day after the Brumbies match. It was communicated that the team needed Dennis long-term, that there would be more to do regardless of how the Waratahs fare this season.

It is a message the 28-year-old has taken to heart and it will buoy him during the next two weeks, when the pain of non-participation will be acute.

In the meantime, with a surplus of thinking time, Dennis has a few theories on why this might be the Waratahs' year.

"We have the capacity to beat any team," he says. "I genuinely feel that because what we've got internally is a very strong thing. It's confidence, a clear understanding of the way we want to play, and the will to win.

"The games we've lost we've lost because we played poorly, not because we lacked a will to win, so I genuinely think we can beat whatever team we face, just off that powerful energy the team has at the moment and the way we're playing."

If the odds hold and the Brumbies rattle up the Hume next week for the most important Australian derby clash in recent years, the Waratahs will face a side with ample experience of finals football.

The Waratahs will have little of that in comparison, but Dennis believes his teammates – his family – will be ready for the challenge.

"The mantra we've built our club around this year is 'have no fear'," he says.

"Back our style; play physical, attacking rugby; and as Cheik always says, let the cards fall where they do. If we lose to a better team, we can accept that as a group, but if we go out there and don't fire any shots, that would be hard to bear."

This story Injured Waratahs captain Dave Dennis still in the mix on the sidelines first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.