Digby Ioane’s criticism aimed at Michael Cheika for ‘missing’ on Pete Samu is a little bit unfair to Cheika – one man can’t be responsible for everything – but it does raise a valid point in regards to the identification of talent and selections made by Australian franchises.
Pete Samu spent time playing in both the Brisbane and Sydney club competitions and was unable to get a full-time opportunity at the next level. Some portion of this is not the fault of the teams. Australian rugby had only five professional teams at the time and no second-tier competition. Opportunities were scarce. Even now, the second-tier NRC competition can’t compensate every player or even pay every Super Rugby player an additional NRC retainer.
This scarcity of opportunity also adds extra responsibility on those making the contracting decisions – full-time contracts are limited so you better make the right calls. Handing a contract to an average player at the expense of a good one has consequences – namely, severely limiting your team’s chances of winning. With the results of the Australian teams the last three years, those in charge cannot dodge blame.
With only two genuine quality feeder pools in the country (Shute Shield in Sydney and Queensland Premier Rugby in Brisbane), it shouldn’t be that hard for teams to identify talent. Those in charge of the Brumbies, Rebels and previously at the Force, should have their eyes glued to those club competitions. The Reds and Waratahs have even more at stake to get things right.
Interestingly, players who show exceptional ability at club level in Brisbane have shown a similar capability in Super Rugby. Samu Kerevi was unstoppable for GPS in 2014 and has replicated his game-breaking ability for the Reds and Wallabies. Despite defensive concerns, his attacking ability cannot be questioned. Isi Naisarani was a successful back-rower for Souths in 2016, who became Australia’s Super Rugby Player of the Year the very next year at the Force. Brumbies fullback and new Wallaby Tom Banks had a number of years at UQ before being called up to the Reds due to depth issues. The list goes on and on.
One of the best players seen in Brisbane club rugby this decade was Sam Greene. As a flyhalf, he played a pivotal position that Australian rugby is now struggling with depth. He played three straight seasons of Premier club rugby straight from school. He was everything Australian teams, for some unknown reason, don’t value – a risk taker and a playmaker. He had speed, skill, vision and one of the best kicking games in the country. He proved by age 21, after over 50 club games he was ready for the next level with all the tools required to succeed as an attacking 10 that Super Rugby requires.
After Quade Cooper left, the Reds continued to stubbornly play the under-20 favourite Jake McIntyre at flyhalf, who led Super Rugby flyhalves in missed tackles and proved over two whole seasons he just wasn’t up to Super Rugby standard. Greene never played more than fifteen minutes in any game, let alone had a chance to start. He left an unproven commodity at Super Rugby level with no opportunities to stay in Australia and has since excelled in the Japanese Top League.
There are players playing Super Rugby in Australia right now that didn’t have half the impact Greene had in club rugby. Not even close. Often you would see the highest rated age grade under-20 talent return to grade and fail to impose themselves. Even pros, on the odd occasion, could step down and get outplayed by their opposite. The younger ones could be excused, only proving they need more time to develop physically and mentally.
There is often a ‘red carpet’ pathway in Australian rugby that is rolled out for chosen ones to the detriment of their development. It offers a shortcut to professional rugby through under-20 programmes. These under-20 commitments often mean players bypass a full season or two in club rugby and only ever play a handful of games – effectively wrapped in cotton wool before being thrown in the deep end.
Case in point, the Reds current 20-year-old flyhalf Hamish Stewart has never played a full season of Premier club rugby against men – instead, playing colts grade and under-20 reps before being thrust into Super Rugby in 2017. He might pan out in the long run, but after 10 games this season there isn’t a lot to suggest he is a special talent worthy of picking at 20-years-old – zero try assists, two line breaks, and two line break assists. Wouldn’t he better off in the long-run earning his stripes at club level right now?
Late bloomers that grow an arm and a leg in their early twenties can end up playing more than those in the ‘system’, and some of them become better players. At times they have already been put on the scrap heap too early by decision-makers. Often there might be two or three equally talented players in a position at 17-years-old. If you can only give one an opportunity, that’s life, but don’t completely discount the other two guys.
It’s great that rugby has pathways for young players, but there is no substitute for time in the saddle to hone skills and develop your game – which club rugby offers. Pete Samu is just the latest example in a long line of players proving that the talent is there in Australian rugby, just sitting below the surface. Often the coaches and selectors either can’t see it, have some form of bias, or personal interests placed in justifying other players.