The 18-year-old midfielder – who was set to become Australia’s third-youngest test player ever before a hamstring injury ruled him out of debuting against Italy in November – was a standout for the Queenslanders in their thrilling 36-31 defeat at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Petaia proved to be a handful for the Highlanders, beating seven defenders to produce two line breaks and run for 103 metres – the most of any player on the park.
His outstanding showing with ball in hand has yielded praise from a range of onlookers, with the sight of him outpacing and turning the likes of Tevita Li and Ben Smith inside out a promising sign for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika leading into the World Cup.
Sky Sport sideline commentator and former New Zealand sevens star Karl Te Nana was in awe of the teenager’s ability throughout the clash.
“Ben Smith doesn’t get beaten on one-on-one tackles very often, but that’s exactly what he [Petaia] did,” Te Nana said.
“He left the All Black fullback in entirely his wake and he’s given his team an opportunity by a couple of exciting runs by the big No 13.”
Te Nana’s praise was echoed by a panel of ex-Wallabies on Fox Sports following the contest, with former 16-test loose forward Stephen Hoiles particularly impressed by the youngster’s efforts.
“I just like the fact that he can run hard, he can run into contact, he can get on the outside of blokes, he’s good in the air — we’ve got to be mindful of not wanting to talk him up — but it’s so refreshing to see a player of this talent who is just playing with his natural instinct,” Hoiles said.
Former Wallabies midfielder and Rebels attack coach Morgan Turunui agreed with Hoiles’ sentiments.
“Nah, let’s talk him up,” he said.
“I’m always dubious over NRC form and I like to see it come through Super, he’s had a couple of good involvements in Super, but this is a complete, commanding performance by a quality 13 in a Super Rugby game against quality opposition, this is an underline that this kid is a talent.”
Former 71-test Wallabies wing Drew Mitchell continued to lather Petaia in praise, outlining his all-round ability as a highlight of his game.
“It wasn’t just with ball in hand, there was a time when he put on Shannon Frizell, who was one of the Highlanders’ best and a bullocking ball runner, but he absolutely deck chaired him, folded him half, and he’s ever present as well,” Mitchell said.
“He’s got good game awareness, pops up when he needs to and the thing I like about him is just his calmness, he’s not getting carried away, a lot of people, like us, are talking him up but he’s just going about his own business, you don’t hear him talking himself up too much, he doesn’t get too carried away with the hype, he’s just going about his work.”
Turunui added that the partnership between Petaia and Reds skipper Samu Kerevi was one that worked well, given that each player complemented the other’s skill set.
“I obviously like the balance of it, the yin and yang of Kerevi being really robust in the middle, Petaia we saw the flash straight away.”
The Reds have returned to Brisbane following the loss to prepare for what should be the biggest challenge of their season as they come up against the back-to-back reining champions, the Crusaders, who are in form after squeezing past the Blues and dismantling the Hurricanes in their opening two fixtures.
Tensions rise between Cheika and Super Rugby clubs:
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