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This is the best generation of backline players eligible for the Wallabies in a while

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images and Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Australian rugby has quietly undergone a resurgence of sorts in terms of building depth and uncovering rugby talent – both heralded and unheralded players.

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Under head coach Dave Rennie, Australia’s playing style and ability to coherently put together passages of play has improved out of sight since the last World Cup.

However, the players coming into the Wallabies have been nurtured, developed and retained, which is a testament to the improving systems in place in Australia.

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The Breakdown | Sky Sport NZ | Episode 12
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The Breakdown | Sky Sport NZ | Episode 12

Izaia Perese is an example of a player who could have been lost numerous times, and did, in fact, leave to try his hand at the NRL, and then in France, before returning for a stint with the Waratahs.

Finding his feet in Sydney, Perese is finally realising the potential many have always seen in him. In 2014, he marked New Zealand Schools midfielders Patelesio Tomkinson and Rieko Ioane as the centre for Australia Schools.

Perese made his mark in a losing side, sparking a late comeback by bursting through four or five tackles to score a special try that illustrated his ability.

Eight years later, he is proving he could be a world-class strike centre with excellent line-running and incredible vision. This play he made against Moana Pasifika at Mt Smart Stadium last weekend was out of this world.

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When you think of centres in New Zealand who are capable of making an individual play like that, few really come to mind.

Fetuli Paea, Billy Proctor, Jack Goodhue and Alex Nankivell are all handy players, but would not – and have not – produced anything like what Perese mustered on Saturday.

Perhaps Rieko Ioane and Peter Umaga-Jensen have that playmaking ability. A surprise package has been Bailyn Sullivan, who has shown flashes of brilliance this season.

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Against Moana Pasifika, Perese showcased his line-running as he broke through the defence on multiple occasions, one instance of which led to a set piece try.

Yes, this was Moana Pasifika, but Perese schooled the Crusaders last week to set Mark Nawaqanitawase up on the right edge at a crucial point in the opening 20 minutes.

Yet, for all the brilliance in Perese’s attacking game, there is another centre in Australia who has already risen to the international level and is perhaps the best defensive No 13 in the world – Len Ikitau of the Brumbies.

What makes Ikitau’s rise startling is that he had not really established himself as a Super Rugby player prior to his Wallabies debut. After 20-odd Brumbies games, Rennie picked the then-22-year-old last year and he flourished immediately.

He is one of the most disciplined defenders in the game, with such a wide range of coverage that doesn’t get beaten.

As seen below during last year’s clash between the Wallabies and Springboks in Brisbane, Ikitau was the last man backpedaling to defend this overlap, and shaded every pass until South Africa ended up over the sideline.

Later that year, when Scotland tried to run a screen against him on this launch play, his progression through the multiple read was laser fast and he exploded past the block runner to blow up the play.

When Scotland had a massive counter-attacking opportunity on this kick return after wing Darcy Graham beat Wallabies second-five Hunter Paisami’s wayward tackle attempt, Ikitau saved the day for Australia.

Graham had only Ikitau to beat, but the Australian made a timely interception to kill the play off.

His ability to win situations when compromised is special, and that is why Rennie, who runs a drift defence for the Wallabies, will select him without fail at centre as his jockey defence is second to none.

Ikitau was a Queensland schoolboy star, but was overlooked for the Australia Schools and Barbarian Schools teams and could have easily been lost as another player who failed to reach their potential.

Given a chance at the Brumbies, he has quickly become one of the best international centres in the game and is critical to Australia’s defensive systems.

It is a similar story for Paisami, whose time with the Rebels didn’t work out, but a move to the Reds has seen him develop into a hard-hitting rush defender who can play at second-five or centre for the Wallabies.

Irae Simone, meanwhile, left the Waratahs to join the Brumbies in 2019, and, after becoming Ikitau’s midfield partner in Canberra, went on to earn his Wallabies debut two years ago.

The retention of young players by a secondary franchise has kept careers moving along and developed the Australia’s pipeline of talent which has added crucial depth.

Across the Tasman, there still doesn’t seem to be definite answers about who will fill the All Blacks‘ midfield, and debate continues to swirl about that topic, while Australia’s depth in that position is building nicely.

On balance, Australia’s midfield stocks are probably stronger, more rounded and definitely more explosive than New Zealand’s, especially if Samu Kerevi is available.

In the outside backs, Australia have done a great job at turning around the career of Andrew Kellaway, who was a blue chip Australian age-grade and U20 star who looked like had fizzled out at the Waratahs.

However, he became a prolific try-scorer in his maiden test campaign last year, to the point where he was nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year following his return to the Rebels from Japan.

Likewise, Brumbies wing Tom Wright is a schoolboy league convert who is international quality, while Reds youngster Jordan Petaia is an elite ball-running talent with plenty of upside to realise.

If he can stay fit, injury-plagued Reds star Suliasi Vunivalu would add even more strike power for the Queenslanders.

This is as good a generation of backline players eligible for the Wallabies since the early 2010s and most are under 25.

At flyhalf, there are impressive young options starting at four of the five Australian franchises: 21-year-old Tane Edmed at the Waratahs, 22-year-old Noah Lolesio at the Brumbies, and 20-year-old Reejsan Pasitoa, who has moved to the Force from the Brumbies for more starting opportunities, and 21-year-old Carter Gordon at the Rebels.

By contrast, New Zealand’s starting first-five options under the age of 24 in Super Rugby Pacific are limited, as reflected by the irregular starts afforded to Chiefs youngster Rivez Reihana, Blues utility Zarn Sullivan and Hurricanes rookie Aidan Morgan.

Elsewhere, Fergus Burke is not going to start at the Crusaders until Richie Mo’unga leaves.

Australia’s next wave of 10s are going to have a big head start on New Zealand as older players block serious long-term options from playing.

Highlanders duo Mitch Hunt and Marty Banks, Hurricanes pivot Jackson Garden-Bachop and Chiefs playmaker Bryn Gatland cannot be said to be the future of the All Blacks at first-five. Even the injured Josh Ioane will be 27-years-old in a couple of months time.

These are all backline positions, granted, but Australia’s system is getting better with identification, retention and distribution for further development.

That comes at the right time to set up Aussie rugby for the next few years, just as New Zealand’s ageing playing base moves on after 2023.

New Zealand’s Super Rugby Pacific teams are still winning the majority of games, but this is not the point. Australian rugby has lifted their playing standard from the late 2010s, when they – and, by extension, the Wallabies – were at rock bottom.

There are positional groups in Australia like the midfield that are truly stronger their counterparts in New Zealand. That hasn’t been the case in a long, long time.

By knocking off three Kiwi sides on the trot, the Brumbies have become legitimate title contenders once again, but those wins were against the three weakest teams, and their two biggest tests against the Crusaders and Blues will be telling.

If the All Blacks are mainly still Crusaders and the Wallabies are mostly Brumbies, it will be interesting to see how wide the gulf in class between the two nations really is.

It would be remiss to predict that the Wallabies will win back the Bledisloe Cup this year, but a 1-1 shared ledger is possible and furthermore very likely.

With the youthful regeneration already underway in Australia, it will be in the next few seasons where the tipping point is reached.

These young players will hit their apex while New Zealand’s older playing contingent will be too far down the other side of theirs.

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