In 2011, New Zealand travelled to the Under 20 World Championship in Italy with arguably the best age-grade rugby side in the history of the game.
The New Zealanders bested England 33-22 in the final and 16 members of the squad have now gone on to play Test rugby.
Of those sixteen, three are first five-eighths – and coach Mark Anscombe had to somehow accommodate all three in his matchday squad.
Gareth Anscombe, Lima Sopoaga and Beauden Barrett were, at the time, three of the most exciting young prospects in the game and, despite all three primarily playing the same position, it made sense to try and incorporate them all into the top line-up.
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As such, Anscombe played at 10, Sopoaga went into the midfield and Barrett was employed at fullback.
It wasn’t the perfect solution, but it meant that New Zealand had three excellent young playmakers on the park at the same time.
Eight years later, after all three had clocked up caps for either New Zealand or, in Anscombe’s case, the adopted home of Wales and across the ditch, Australia were suddenly faced with a similar problem to their neighbours.
Junior Wallabies coach, Jason Gilmore, named an Under 20 squad bursting with talent in the playmaker role, including ACT’s Noah Lolesio, New South Wales’ Will Harrison and Queensland’s Isaac Lucas.
Come the final of the 2019 World Championship, it was clear that all three had to be on the field. As such, Gilmore named Harrison at 10, Lolesio in the midfield and Lucas at fullback.
Despite only one of the four franchises being victorious, collectively the Australian performances indicate the @wallabies could field a strong side in 2020, writes @ArgyleSport. #SuperRugby https://t.co/KpB1tqcF4r
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 3, 2020
Australia didn’t quite have the same success as their neighbours did eight years prior, losing by a single point to France, but it was obvious that the trio of young playmakers were all destined for great things.
Lucas, the oldest of the group, will turn 21 next week.
New Zealand’s first fives, by comparison, were all in the range of 21 to 25-years-old while the South African sides’ playmakers averaged 27-years-old.
That shouldn’t come as a massive surprise to anyone who has paid attention to Australia’s exodus of talent since the World Cup.
Bernard Foley and Christian Lealiifano, who battled it out for the starting Wallabies jersey last year, have left the Waratahs and the Brumbies for Japan – paving the way for Harrison and Lolesio to make their starts.
Quade Cooper, meanwhile, has departed the Rebels but Toomua has taken over at 10 with coach Dave Wessels saying that “Super Rugby is a place for men, it’s not a place for boys” to justify his selection.
The Rebels’ only other option at 10 is 24-year-old Andrew Deegan, who made his professional debut for the Western Force in 2018’s Rapid Rugby showcase.
Lucas spent the better part of last year with the Reds before heading to Argentina with the Under 20s but was mainly utilised at fullback. Now, Bryce Hegarty, the man who spent most of the year at first five has shifted into the outside backs, allowing Lucas to have a run at 10.
It’s not an exaggeration to say these three young men have entered Super Rugby with the hopes of the nation resting on their shoulders. With so many experienced campaigners heading off-shore, the Wallabies are in desperate need of a first five to take them to the next World Cup and beyond.
Toomua, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor have all worn the Wallabies 10 jersey in the past, but they’re all realistically better suited to other positions.
It would be entirely unfair to expect any of Lucas, Lolesio or Harrison to take charge of playmaking duties in Australian colours at this early stage of their careers but that appears to be the position that new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie may be forced to put them in.
Lucas, from what we saw of him last year, is a prodigious talent in the mould of Damian McKenzie and has the potential to set a new-age Wallabies backline alight – providing he has the right men around him.
The success of the Wallabies in 2020 will be as much dependant on the players that Rennie chooses to utilise at 9 and 12 as it is on the former world champions finding a playmaker to take them forward.
Samu Kerevi, the Wallabies’ inside centre at the last World Cup, has also left for Japan, which could open the door for O’Connor to shift one position closer to the ruck and offer playmaking support from the 12 jersey. Beale or Toomua could also cover inside centre, but the former would probably be better utilised at fullback while the latter appeals as useful bench option.
The picture is even murkier at halfback now that Will Genia is also in Japan.
Nic White’s return for the 2019 Test season immediately reaped rewards with his playmaking from the 9 jersey causing massive problems for the All Blacks in Perth during the Rugby Championship. His impact lessened as the year went on, however, and he found himself on the reserves bench come Australia’s World Cup quarter-final loss to England.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 5, 2020
White will still be available for the Wallabies this year and Rennie may be inclined to sandwich a young 10 by experienced players – which bodes well for White, the only Wallabies-eligible halfback with more than a handful of Test caps.
Other options include Brumbies scrumhalf Joe Powell or Jake Gordon from the Waratahs. Last year’s Under 20 halfbacks, Michael McDonald and Henry Robertson, are also contracted to the Waratahs for this season.
There’s obviously still plenty of time for Australia’s young playmakers to stand up and be counted during this year’s season of Super Rugby. In the past, however, 20-year-olds may have just been playing for a contract renewal. This year, they may well be playing for a chance to represent their country on the highest stage.
The stakes have never been higher.
WATCH: New Wallabies coach Dave Rennie will be picking players on form, not reputation.
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