'It's exciting': Are these the playmakers who could steer the Wallabies to victory over the All Blacks?
Much has been made over the new-look Wallabies side that has travelled to New Zealand to kick-off the new era of Australian rugby under the guidance of Kiwi head coach Dave Rennie.
Of the 44 players who are currently quarantining in Christchurch ahead of next Sunday’s Bledisloe Cup opener in Wellington, 16 have never donned a Wallabies jersey before.
There is, however, a solid core of returning, experienced figures who Rennie will look at to provide leadership among this youthful squad, as evidenced by the former Chiefs and Glasgow coach’s decision to retain Michael Hooper as national captain.
Perhaps an even bigger selection decision looms on the horizon, though, as, from an outsider’s perspective, Australia’s halves combination seems anything but decided with less than a fortnight to the Wallabies’ first test match of 2020.
Neither Will Genia nor Christian Lealiifano, both of whom started at halfback and first-five in Australia’s 40-16 World Cup quarter-final defeat to England last year, have returned to the Wallabies set-up after taking up contracts in Japan.
In fact, of the four-man halves contingent that ex-Wallabies boss Michael Cheika took with him to Japan over a year ago, only veteran Brumbies scrumhalf Nic White has been kept by Rennie, with flyhalf Bernard Foley also jetting off for a stint in the Top League.
It leaves Rennie with a conundrum as to who he will field in the halves positions against the All Blacks, but it’s a headache that will be warmly welcomed given the amount of promise that exists within his cohort of players.
Through the likes of White, James O’Connor and Matt Toomua, as well as youngsters such as Noah Lolesio, Tate McDermott and Will Harrison, there is balanced mix of youth and experience at Rennie’s disposal.
It’s that significant departure of old heads, according to two New Zealand rugby stars, that presents a massive opportunity for the squad’s newbies to stake their claim for an established role in the Australian match day squad.
Speaking to the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall said he was impressed with the amount of young talent on offer in the Wallabies squad, highlighting 20-year-old Reds utility back Jordan Petaia as a rising star he’s eager to see play.
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How well the three-test starlet plays, however, will come down to how well the halves pairing performs in their roles, according to Hall’s provincial teammate and veteran Blues hooker James Parsons.
Joining Hall as a panellist on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, the North Harbour rake believed that while there is an exciting crop of youthful players in Australian rugby, that inexperience needs to be balanced out by someone with international experience.
For that reason, as well as Rennie’s repeated insistence that he will pick his side based on form, Parsons said that 52-test playmaker O’Connor stands as a strong candidate for the first-five position.
“I think O’Connor has to be at 10, if you’re going to go with that sort of youth. I think he can set them alight,” Parsons said.
“It’s got to be Gordon [at halfback], if he’s picking on form. I know McDermott’s gone well, but, man, [the] Waratahs turned around on the back of his ability to run around that ruck.”
Parsons’ prediction of Gordon wearing the No. 9 jersey went against Hall’s suggestion of handing the starting reigns to impressive uncapped Reds scrumhalf McDermott, who was one of the standouts throughout the Super Rugby campaign.
“McDermott, he was fantastic, unbelievable in that [Super Rugby] AU,” the Maori All Black representative said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how they go against Nuggy [Aaron Smith] and our boys.”
However, Parsons pointed to Rennie’s history of using what he described as “running, abrasive” halfbacks as reasoning behind his prediction.
“I just go based off what he’s had in the past, [Tawera] Kerr-Barlow, Auggie Pulu, he likes that running, abrasive 9,” the two-test All Black said, referring to Rennie’s tenure at the Chiefs between 2012 and 2017.
While Parsons and Hall initially disagreed on who the best option was for Rennie to deploy at halfback, the pair echoed each other in their praise of O’Connor, who returned to international rugby last year after six turbulent years in the wilderness.
“It’s great to see James O’Connor coming back and getting himself into the picture where he is now, because you think about his rollercoaster, and we talk about maturity, and you think you see it in his play now, but even in the way he holds himself,” Hall said.
“You look at the guy that was at the Melbourne Rebels to where he is now and the experiences that he’s had, I think it’s great.”
Parsons relayed a similar assessment of O’Connor’s transition since coming back from Europe for a third stint in Australian rugby, highlighting how valuable the 29-year-old could yet prove to be.
“You’ve got a lot of youth outside that needs to be unlocked, and I think that can be unlocked by that flat, at-the-line ability, make decisions to run, pass, kick, get that game management stuff balanced,” Parsons said.
“Rennie’s already complimented the way O’Connor’s turned himself around and all that, but I just think his skill set, his confidence at the moment, he’s playing confident and he’s playing in form, and all I keep hearing out of that camp is, ‘You’re going to be picked on form’.”
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Parsons added: “He’s probably like a coach on the grass, through his own experiences, and having someone like him in the environment, with all these young men, and where their careers can go, he’s the perfect sounding board or perfect person to say, ‘Knock that on the head, otherwise you’re going down a tough road’.
“I think it’s exciting. I think the young Brumbies flyhalf Lolesio will be on the bench, if fit, and even Toomua could potentially be on that bench because he can in the play midfield, cover fullback.”
As a halfback himself, Hall reciprocated Parsons’ sentiments about the importance of having an experienced playmaker at the helm, with the pair noting that 52-test five-eighth Toomua could challenge fellow utility O’Connor at either No. 10 or No. 12.
“Me being an inside back, and you’ve got a lot of young guys around you, having that steady head that just gives you confidence around game management and communication, it just really helps you,” Hall said.
“I agree that there’s going to be a lot of enthusiasm, energy and young guys. I think it should be based on form, but… having a guy like that [Toomua] at either 10 or 12, it’d be good to have a conversation around it.”
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