One of the biggest challenges that has remained consistent for Dave Rennie throughout his first five games as head coach has surrounded the balance of the backline, led by somewhat inexperienced or unproven first-fives.
The three players that he’s selected to orchestrate the Wallabies attack have all had big questions asked of them, despite the strengths each player can bring to the field.
But even though all players promised so much throughout Super Rugby AU, the Wallabies have won just 20% of their matches this year. Their most recent test was against Los Pumas in Newcastle, where they surrendered a nine-point lead to draw 15-all.
Australia appeared to be in control from the get-go, playing with a majority of possession and they dominated the territory battle as well. But still, they couldn’t quite execute when they needed to, and Nicolas Sanchez made the Wallabies pay with another reliable kicking display.
With 63% of possession, the Wallabies only had a few try scoring opportunities in the first-half; opportunities that we largely created by the Reds midfield partnership of Hunter Paisami and Jordan Petaia.
So, while not all fans have been doing this, some have begun criticising the selection of Reece Hodge at 10, and question whether alternative options would benefit the Wallabies.
Wallabies. Should have scored 3 or 4 times in first half. Again, too much panic 2nd half was just weird. Had most of the ball, kept kicking it away. Being at the game, the crowd was not happy. Close to booing them off. Pumas were nowhere. Reece Hodge, good, but not a 10, sorry.
— Will Figueira (@willfigueira1) November 21, 2020
It’s not that 10s play was bogus, but J O’C is a more creative playmaker than Reece Hodge
Pumas were off the mark, but Wallabies still couldn’t capitalize
— Chris Mwenda (@MwendaChris) November 21, 2020
He dragged Wright, who was having a great game, for Daugunu who gave away a crucial penalty. And the Wallabies missed real guidance at 10. Hodge was good but not enough at 10. Seems some of the blame lies with him, not just the 15 on the field.
— JohnnyMac (@BrumbyinTahland) November 21, 2020
Hodge is not a flyhalf. Maybe 2nd 5/8 or fullback but not No.10. ATM O’Connor is our best 10 but it won’t be long before the kid from the Brumbies takes over.
— laughing conservative (@laughingconser1) November 21, 2020
The other options both mentioned in those Tweets, and the other two players that we’ve seen start at flyhalf this year, have been James O’Connor and Noah Lolesio.
Both players really impressed in Super Rugby AU, with O’Connor up there for the best player in the competition, while Lolesio stole the show in the Final in Canberra.
But having three quality talents in the same position is a good headache for Rennie to have – it’s just a matter of who belongs where at the moment.
By looking at each player and what they’ve brought to the test arena this year, it’s become pretty clear that there’s one player above the others who has played himself into being the first-choice.
Let’s start with the incumbent.
Hodge has been heavily criticised largely because he missed a pivotal kick with three minutes to play against the Pumas, which would’ve likely have given his side the win.
Hodge had otherwise converted all five of his penalties up until that point. After the match, the 26-eyar-old said that he felt like “I’ve let my country down.” This comes just a month after he had a chance to win Bledisloe I in Wellington with a long-range penalty, but that also missed.
But overall, the Wallabies’ Mr Fix It has performed admirably at flyhalf.
In Bledisloe IV, he was arguably the runner up for player of the match, right behind winger Marika Koroibete.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 21, 2020
In that match, he finished with 14-points and also made 16 tackles, which was the second-most of any player on the day. Hodge also had a try assist, setting up debutant Tom Wright with a try with a perfectly weighted kick chip in-behind the All Blacks defensive line.
Then against Argentina on Saturday, he performed strongly, carrying the ball 11 times. He was maybe outshone by the exciting centre paring in Paisami and Petaia, which had his best game yet, but he was up there for player of the match once again.
Even though the Wallabies struggled in the second half in Newcastle, that was down to a variety of factors, not just Hodge. Their lineout was struggling, their discipline was off; fix those and he has more of a chance to prove his worth.
But the biggest tick next to his name has to be how he’s steered the Wallabies towards success. Not only did he lead his team to a big win over the All Blacks, but he did his job arguably better than most against the Pumas as well. Without him, Australia lose both of those matches.
He’s only had two opportunities this year starting but he’s not foreign to the position either, and has both played and performed there for the Wallabies in the past.
Considering he wasn’t really in the conversation to be starting before the test season started, he’s done an exceptional job in a very young team. Once missed kick shouldn’t take away from all the good that he’s done – he’s done the jersey proud.
Without a doubt, O’Connor is Hodge’s biggest rival for the starting job.
The 30-year-old was a class above for the Reds in Super Rugby AU, and with the support of Matt To’omua in the first one and a half Bledisloe’s, he shined for the Wallabies.
But that’s the thing: once To’omua went off in Auckland, O’Connor fell apart. He couldn’t control the game to the same level that he had in the past.
In defence, O’Connor also has a tackle percentage of 78.5% in his two games this year, while Hodge has missed just one tackle from 20 attempts in his two games at flyhalf.
Goal kicking has also improved drastically with Hodge on the park, seeing that O’Connor converted just three from seven attempts – but it is worth noting that the match in Wellington was played in tough conditions.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 21, 2020
In his favour though is the breakout centre pairing of Paisami and Petaia, two players he’s played alongside at the Reds. If those two can continue to click both at test level and for the Reds, then playing Super Rugby alongside those two could bode well for O’Connor.
Combinations are everything.
Those two could very well be the next Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, just for the Wallabies – having someone familiar inside them can only mean good things.
But overall, O’Connor hasn’t proven himself as the first-choice pivot for the Wallabies on his own form. While he probably deserves another chance, and considering that both he or Hodge could play elsewhere, it could be possible to fit them both in the same starting side.
But for me, Hodge has simply been better than O’Connor. Even if O’Connor is fit in two weeks time, he shouldn’t come right back in.
Lolesio was thrown into test match rugby far too soon. The up-and-comer had only played three Super Rugby AU games before he was selected in Rennie’s 44-man Wallabies squad.
Many hoped that he’d impress on his starting debut in Sydney, but I think it’s fair to say that most were sceptical considering his experience. While he scored a try, but considering his side loss by a record 38-point margin, the rest of the night wasn’t too flash.
While he impressed in his cameo off the bench in Brisbane, Lolesio just isn’t what the Wallabies need right now. He’s very much a pick for the future.
Seeing that he’s been an unused sub on two occasions only just goes to show that he’s not an option for the Wallabies in tight games yet.
Fans have taken to social media to express their amazement at the athleticism shown by Wallabies midfielder Jordan Petaia in the act of failing to score what would have been a contender for try of the season. #ARGvAUS #TriNations https://t.co/zWWSSQvTY0
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 21, 2020
Continue to blood him by all means off the bench, watch him improve as a result, but the Wallabies can’t rely on a 20-year-old to win big games.
If we’re talking about the short-term, then it has to be either Hodge or O’Connor who starts tests.
Even if O’Connor is back from injury in time for the final test of the year, Hodge has earned the right to continue to do what’s been working – excluding the second half against the Pumas.
I’m already a big fan of the Paisami-Petaia midfield combination so I wouldn’t change that by moving O’Connor to 12. Instead, Hodge should start until proven otherwise, with O’Connor coming off the bench.
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