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The understated flanker who could be just what Joe Schmidt is looking for

By John Ferguson
Liam Wright with the Wallabies in 2020. (Photos by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images and Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

In 2023 the Wallabies were all about power, raw talent and one liners, in 2022 it was about keeping enough players injury free to field a quality side, but in 2024 it’s set to be the year of the grafters under new head coach Joe Schmidt.

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We now know Schmidt expects work rate, accuracy and rugby nous of his future Wallabies, raw talent will not be cast aside but Schmidt has said he will focus on how hard players are working with talent being the cherry on top.

Upfront is where the battle is won and lost as the adage goes, and upfront the Wallabies are seeing talent ripen.

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Propping depth is building nicely, likewise, there’s a promising batch of young locks that will near the peak of its power for the 2027 home World Cup.

The tightest competition is perhaps amongst the groups vying for the No.8 and openside flanker spots.

However, the one jersey that hasn’t been claimed by any one player since Scott Fardy is the blindside flanker, the No.6 and at a glance, depth could be precariously thin.

The list Super Rugby Pacific blindside flankers who are starting for their teams regularly and that are contracted to Australia long-term has no names on it.

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Lachie Swinton and Josh Kemeny are both experienced Super Rugby campaigners who have pulled on the gold jersey.

The duo have been solid so far in 2024 and are nearing the perfect age profile for a blindside flanker, however, the pair have signed to head overseas at the end of 2024.

Although the pair will technically still be signed to Australia during the July tests and the Rugby Championship, their moves offshore may not endear them with Schmidt who has said he is looking for players playing within Australia first.

Schmidt’s short 18-month tenure is as much about winning games in the short term as well as build towards the British and Irish Lions series in 2025.

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Next are two players who have worn the No.6 jersey for the Wallabies in recent years: Melbourne Rebels captain Rob Leota and Waratahs journeyman Jed Holloway, who are both signed through to the end of 2025.

However, neither of these players are playing at No.6 for club and are perhaps not best suited to play there at Test level.

The youngest of the group is 23-year-old Tom Hooper who is reported to have an extension deal in the works by the ACT Brumbies who are keen to lockdown the burgeoning talent.

Hooper shot into the spotlight under Eddie Jones in 2023, but Hooper, like many forwards, don’t reach their potential until their mid-to-late twenties and it’s evident he still has some growing to do, both physically and in his technical gameplay.

Then there’s the three most important players who all are off contract at the end of 2024 and are yet to decide on their futures.

The Waratahs’ Ned Hanigan, Western Force’s Tim Anstee and Queensland Reds’ Liam Wright.

Ned Hanigan, 28, has impressed in his three starting appearances and one effort off the bench for the Waratahs.

The hallmarks of his game this year have been dominant carries and an elite tackling percentage of 97.7.

Over at the Force, 26-year-old Tim Anstee has been impressive in a struggling side over three starts and while a Wallabies call up in 2024 seems unlikely, he is exactly the type of player Australian rugby must retain.

He’s a toiler who having been in the Sevens program is an impeccable athlete who has potential to one day feature in a Wallaby gold.

Finally, there’s the Queensland Reds’ co-captain Liam Wright.

You won’t hear his name in the commentary, and you won’t see him in the highlight reels but he is doing the tough stuff upfront and the smart work on the side that allows his Reds team to shine.

While he’s not the biggest, nor tallest No.6 in Australia, very few in the entire competition are working as hard as Wright on either side of the ball.

He’s played every minute of every game for the Reds in 2024 and has played at least 160 minutes more than any of the other No.6s listed here.

This figure alone is very impressive considering his horror injury run in recent years.

Defensively he’s great making 64 tackles at 92 per cent completion rate, the most tackles of anyone here listed.

While he’s not as dominant in the carry as the others, Wright is a team player and comes into his own when the players around him have the ball.

For a start, he cleans rucks like a demon alongside Reds’ lock Ryan Smith.

It’s a vital but thankless task that allows his backrow partners Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson to run support lines and create overlaps in attack.

To put it into numbers, he has hit the second most attacking rucks in the comp at 61, only two behind Smith who has hit 63.

The next closest is the Chiefs’ Jacob Norris who has hit 57, illustrating just how far ahead Wright is of the rest of this group.

The cleanouts are not huge shots rather they’re well timed, effective and regularly prevent the Reds from conceding a turnover.

Liam Wright urgent clean 1

Liam Wright urgent clean 2

Liam Wright urgent clean 4

Each of these clips show how Wright has identified a vulnerable ruck is about to form, or a lone ball carrier is about to be isolated, and his quick thinking has prevented a probable turnover.

It’s also evident he covers large distances to secure the ruck, sometimes covering five or six metres just to secure the breakdown when other’s fail to see the vulnerability.

Wright is evidently getting through a mountain of work, but it isn’t just busy work, he has purpose, intent and great rugby nous behind each individual action.

Liam Wright smart move

Liam Wright strong tackles

In the first clip he works back from a clean out, positioning himself between Cadyrn Neville and his flyhalf Tom Lynagh who is looking to kick.

This doesn’t take a lot of effort nor talent, but it’s the one percenters like this which make the difference at the next level.

The second clip shows Wright stripping the ball from John Eales medallist Rob Valetini, and how he makes a menace of himself when tackling Sefo Kautai.

The average ruck speed of the four rucks prior were four seconds, in this tackle Wright makes it a nine second ruck.

Wright is walking the line between not rolling away and being a nuisance brilliantly, and it’s this sort of niggle and intellect that’s been in short supply at the Wallabies in recent years.

In the final clip below, Wright completes another urgent clean, coming from distance once again as he sees co-captain Tate McDermott looking for a box kick.

Prop Peni Ravai cleans too far, and because Wright arrives ahead of Seru Uru he prevents that ball from being called out of the ruck.

Liam Wright urgent clean 4


Wright has prevented four possible turnovers in the clips above, either when the Reds were in their half and needing to relieve pressure or when they were hot on attack.

None of this will ever make a highlights reel but it’s the kind of detail Schmidt will appreciate.

If his effort around the field wasn’t enough of a workload, Wright is also the team’s lineout caller, and is running the third most effective lineout in the comp.

He is also the second highest lineout taker, punching well above his 193cm to claim 28 lineouts, just one less than Wallaby lock Nick Frost.

Wright also boasts 10 more lineout wins than the next best backrower in All BlacksHoskins Sotutu who’s on 18.

In the modern game having three jumping options is crucial, South Africa is a great exponent of this, they regularly field at least one tall backrower to provide variation at lineout time.

Once all put down in black on white, it becomes clear that securing the starting blindside flankers for the Waratahs, Brumbies, Reds and the Force is crucial for the depth of the position ahead of this pivotal four-year period for Australian rugby.

However, securing Liam Wright through until the end of 2025 at the very least is imperative.

This is because although players my trump him on one out stats like dominant tackles, metres per carry or tackle percentage, as a complete player he trumps them all.

Looking at Wright you won’t necessarily see the “talent” of a Valetini, Leota or Swinton but the numbers show you the kind of player he is.

A final point is that the backrow, much like the wider eight-man pack demands balance.

The big carriers, the ballers and the pilferers need the grafters to make it all possible, and no Liam Wright is most definitely one of Australia’s premier grafters.

A backrow of great ball carriers of either a Wilson or Valetini at No.8 with one of the top tacklers in Super Rugby Pacific in McReight at openside flanker and a workhorse in Wright at No.6 and Schmidt would have himself a well-balanced and dynamic Wallabies backrow.

If this sort of balance can be found it’ll go a long way to rectify the Wallabies’ vulnerable attacking breakdown, that struggled under both Eddie Jones and Dave Rennie.

In 2023, the Wallabies gave away an average of 13 turnovers per game, in one game it got as high as 17 and Wright is a player who can help turn this trend around.

Wright hasn’t pulled on the gold jersey since 2020, but with a new coach who looks for work effort and smarts around the field, Wright couldn’t be far of Schmidt’s radar.

At the very least Rugby Australia must move fast to secure his services for the next couple years.

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Comments

2 Comments
l
laurence 100 days ago

Good review, cheers.

B
Beaudy 100 days ago

His carrying has also improved greatly, he often dives into the gap preventing collisions. He with Mcreight and Valentini/Wilson will be exciting

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