Georgia’s Vano Karkadze has the honour of being the youngest player at this tournament, although the 19-year-old has only appeared from the bench so far for the Lelos. The hooker is just over three months Petaia’s junior.
Furthermore, the game against Uruguay will be Petaia’s international debut, with injury having denied him the opportunity to make his Test bow earlier this season. Any international debut offers opportunity, though a strong performance from the Queensland Reds star this weekend could herald the beginning of a changing of the guard in the Australian back line.
The Wallabies have already lost one of their stalwarts in Israel Folau for his off-field conduct, whilst long-serving scrum-half Will Genia has announced he will retire from international rugby after the Rugby World Cup. The likes of Bernard Foley, Christian Lealiifano, Kurtley Beale and Dane Haylett-Petty are also in their 30’s and the effervescent Adam Ashley-Cooper is set to turn 36 next season.
Australia and Michael Cheika are unlikely to discard players en masse, especially given the challenges the nation faces in retaining players and talent at its Super Rugby franchises, but there will undoubtedly be a youth movement following the conclusion of the tournament. Isaac Lucas, Noah Lolesio, Will Harrison and Semisi Tupou are among the young guns who will be hoping to force their way in over the coming years, although it’s Petaia who has been given first crack at embedding himself into Cheika’s thinking.
The Brisbane State High School product is even still eligible for Australia’s U20 team next year, though a strong performance against Uruguay followed up by a good campaign with the Reds next year can help ensure that he is playing senior international rugby, rather than the age-grade in 2020. His versatility across the back three and as an outside centre is only going to help him in that goal.
As a ball-carrier, he already offers plenty of ability and though the game against Uruguay will not be the most challenging he’ll face in his burgeoning international career, it will be an examination of how he copes defensively and aerially in what, initially at least, should be a tighter game and game plan than the one he is used to with the Reds and in age-grade rugby. It’s a shame that injury denied him the opportunity to truly breakout in Super Rugby this season, although his potential – and skill already – is such that Cheika has had no hesitations in taking him to Japan.
Saturday should provide the first glimpse into the international career of a player that could become one of the foundation pieces of the Australian back line heading into the 2023 and 2027 Rugby World Cups. With a large turnover likely coming in playing personnel, there is no better time for Petaia to announce himself at the senior level.
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