Great teams always have great flyhalves.
Steve Larkham in 1999, Jonny Wilkinson in 2003 and Dan Carter more recently.
With many candidates at his disposal, Michael Cheika has never been assured of his best number 10 despite Bernard Foley often being selected in that role.
For Australia to succeed at the Rugby World Cup, Cheika will need to discover his best playmaker and stick with him, fast.
Cheika’s game plan has always seen a free flowing and open attacking style where ball movement is paramount. Key to this is being able to use the ball in the right field position and shifting the attack from one side to another to change the opposition’s defensive alignments.
Who suits this plan is another question.
Bernard Foley, Quade Cooper and Matt Toomua have previously been tried under Cheika, yet none have set the world alight.
There are four main competitors for the fly-half position.
The incumbent is Foley, who knows the intricies of the game plan having played under Cheika at the Waratahs. For all of Foley’s adept running game and fluid passing ability, he struggles to deliver general play kicking and his exiting, both of which have come under constant scrutiny during his time as a Wallaby.
Second is Cooper, who is the people’s choice. Now 31, he doesn’t possess the famous highlight reel side-stepping talent but Cooper still has a slick passing game that many only dream of. Yet with age has not come stability for Cooper, who still struggles defensively and his performances are continually hot and cold; not something you’re looking for in your five-eighth.
2019 has also seen the re-emergence of Lealiifano, who after many setbacks is playing some great rugby in one of the most amazing feel good stories in our game. Lealiifano is a sound passer, kicks well and is an expert goal shooter yet lacks the confidence to consistently attack the opponent’s line flat and fast. The question over Lealiifano is does he have the mental hunger and drive to be an international quality fly-half?
Lastly there is Toomua, whose greatest strength is a mix of everything; an abrasive ball carry, defensive fortitude and organisational ability. He has always been a reliable player but as his career has developed he has shifted out to 12 as a perfect dual playmaking option. His greatest weakness is his kicking game and this is exposed at first receiver.
The story so far
This year’s Australian Super Rugby campaign has seen the shootout between Cooper, Foley and Lealiifiano for the Wallabies starting position for the World Cup in Japan.
The three well-respected stand-offs have shown some of their best form from the last 4 years this season, with Foley and Cooper being seen as the front runners for the role.
Added to this is the incoming Toomua, who has signed a deal to play for the Rebels and will be eligible in the latter rounds of the competition.
In steps Bryce Hegarty, a 27-year-old Rebels and Waratahs reject, who has taken his trades to the Queensland Reds this season and lead them to a 4-5 start, sitting fourth in the Australian conference.
Contrary to the competitors for the Wallabies 10 jersey, Hegarty has never been seen as the lynchpin despite starting over 30 games at both the Rebels and the Waratahs. He has also spent time playing for two of the Japanese Top League franchises in his career.
Such a diverse career has meant Hegarty has had to learn a variety of systems resulting in a player who is not a master of one skill but a jack of all trades. Unlike his counterparts who were often touted as ‘the next big thing in Australian rugby’, Hegarty has had to fit into sides with differing playing styles and not one that was built around him.
This has allowed Hegarty to be not have one ‘fatal flaw’ like his competitors and has made his game well-rounded.
Now at the Reds, he is the main man.
The Silent Assassin
Hegarty has proven at the Reds that despite not being the most talked about player, he provides quality service for those around him.
The Reds of scored more tries than Foley’s Waratahs and a key part of this has been Hegarty. He is not afraid to demand the ball when he needs it and has done away with over-complicated block plays, often playing fast at the line forcing defenders to make decisions.
Hegarty also clearly knows his role. He knows he doesn’t have the ability of Cooper who could throw a 40 metre triple cut out pass.
What he does know is how to distribute the ball with intent to move forward, something the Wallabies have struggled to do in the past.
It is not unusual to see the Wallabies swing the ball around looking for inroads without moving forward. Consequently they are often caught out by opposing sides who can capitalise on errors in good field position.
At the Reds, Hegarty is happy to either take the ball to the line and go forward or sit in the pocket and turn the opposition around by kicking to the corners accurately and exiting precisely when required.
These are the skills of a player who knows his own game inside and out and by doing so, can allow those outside of him to strut their stuff. The Reds top the conference for defenders beaten and are high up in clear breaks and this can be partially attributed to Hegarty.
With Hegarty at 10, Samu Kerevi has torn oppositions apart, Sefa Naivalu has flourished and Hamish Stewart has been dangerous as the all-round game of Hegarty freed their own games
Does Australia have the next Stephen Larkham? No.
Do they have a 10, hidden amongst the pack who could guide them to World Cup glory?
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