Depending on whether a Wallabies supporter was the type of person that sees the glass as half full or half empty, they would have entered 2020 with very different expectations for the new season.
Bernard Foley, Christian Lealiifano and Quade Cooper all left Australia’s shores at the end of 2019.
Has Matt Giteau played his last game of professional rugby?:
Regardless of how highly you rated that trio, they collectively shared 401 Super Rugby caps and over 160 appearances for the national team.
That’s a lot of experience to shed from one year to the next.
The pessimist would have entered 2020 anticipating ample losses across the board for the Australian Super Rugby sides and without too much hope for the Wallabies either.
The optimist, however, would have looked upon the new season as a new dawn for Australian rugby. Yes, the nation has lost three experienced, practised operators – but that brings with it the opportunity for fresh young talent to thrive.
While it hasn’t necessarily been smooth sailing across the park, two young five-eighth talents have stood out in particular: the Waratahs’ Will Harrison and the Brumbies’ Noah Lolesio.
That pairing, combined with Reds’ utility Isaac Lucas, shared the playmaking duties for Australia’s 2019 Under 20 side which came within a whisker of snaring the World Championship title.
In last year’s final, Harrison started at 10, Lolesio lined up in the midfield and Lucas operated from fullback.
All three of those New Zealand players have now gone on to play international football in the 10 jersey.
Tellingly, Harrison, Lolesio and Lucas all started at first five in the opening round of Super Rugby.
While Lucas has since spent time at fullback and on the bench, Harrison and Lolesio started every match of the abandoned season at first receiver.
Harrison’s elevation to the 10 jersey is hardly surprising given his success in the Junior Wallabies but it’s Lolesio’s run with the Brumbies which is a bit more curious.
How does a man who spent all his schoolboy years – as well as his representative rugby – at 12, suddenly get thrust into arguably the most important position on a rugby field and not just survive but excel?
From Lolesio’s point of view, it’s been an easy transition.
“Obviously, I’ve got a great forward pack in front of me and that helps a lot,” Lolesio told RugbyPass. “The go-forward ball I get gives me all the time in the world and I just have to pick the right options.
“I felt pretty comfortable sliding straight into that 10 position. I’ve got great players outside me; the backline is just unreal and full of smart footballers like Irae [Simone], Tevita [Kuridrani] and Banksy [Tom Banks] in the back, which brings constant chatter.
“I didn’t find it as challenging as I was expecting at all thanks to all the great players around me. I’ve just been doing my job for my team and enjoying my footy.”
Although Lolesio was quick to offload the praise onto the rest of the players around him, it still takes incredible talent to handle the playmaking duties for a Super Rugby side at just 20 years of age – talent which was well-spotted by Brumbies coach Dan McKellar when Lolesio was barely out of school.
“I had a chat to Dan because I did half a pre-season with the Brums straight after school,” Lolesio said.
“He just asked me what position I prefer and I said I was pretty easy, I didn’t mind playing 12 or 10 but he basically told me after one training season ‘I reckon you’re a 10, mate’. That was at the end of 2017.”
— Tom Vinicombe (@TomVinicombe) March 25, 2020
It wasn’t just McKellar who saw the potential, however.
Wallabies centurion Matt Giteau recently attended a Brumbies academy session and thought Lolesio had enormous potential.
“He was playing 12 at the time and just the way he could play with confidence, attacked the line, the things he saw… I just thought that he was step above most of the kids at that training session,” Giteau revealed to RugbyPass.
“So, I was pretty pleased to see him going well this year and obviously stepping into Christian Lealiifano’s shoes. He did so much here for the club and in the area, it’s obviously pleasing that Noah’s doing well.”
Lolesio himself says Lealiifano played a big part in his development.
“I’m forever grateful to be in that 10 jersey with so many good players having played in that jersey – obviously Christian and Stephen Larkham and all that stuff,” Lolesio said.
“I’m just trying to do my part for the team and make that No. 10 jersey prideful from all those past players.
“When Christian was there last year, he was a dominant presence and such a good leader. He’s helped me so much – I probably hung around like a bad spell.
“He gave me heaps of guidance, on and off the field. He was an instrumental role-model to me.”
Beyond the likes of Lealiifano and Larkham, there have been a number of players that Lolesio has looked up to – some more surprising than others.
“I just loved to watch guys like Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams,” said Lolesio. “Obviously, during school, I was playing inside centre.
“They’ve got the whole package, they can run, pass, kick, defend. I just tried to base my game around that.
“I’m always willing to learn, always looking for different ways to enhance my game.”
And what does the future hold for the Brumbies’s newest playmaker?
“I set a goal for myself before this year to start every game in the number 10 jersey,” Lolesio said. “Hopefully, when the season comes back on, I can keep doing that.
The absence of Lealiifano, Foley and Cooper means that there’s also opportunities in the national set-up.
Even Australia’s glass half-empty fans will have taken note of Lolesio’s impressive performances to date – but the 20-year-old himself isn’t looking too far ahead.
“Dave Rennie came down for one pre-season training session and he talked to us as a group, saying that he’s looking for new blood to come through the Wallabies system,” said Lolesio.
“I haven’t had much to do with him yet but hopefully, in the future I do.
“It’s very exciting. I can’t ignore the noise but I’m always focussing on the Brumbies, that’ll always be my number one priority at this time. Hopefully, my performances here impress the coaches there.”
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