As the Super Rugby season enters its 7th round the Wallaby selection panel of Michael Cheika, Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor would each undoubtedly have an idea of the ‘non-negotiable’ selections they want for the Rugby World Cup 2019. If fit, players such as Hooper, Pocock, Folau, and Genia will be going make no bones about it.
Yet each Super Rugby season unveils players who at the commencement of the tournament would have only been considered for selection by their nearest and dearest, yet as the season progresses their performances start to catch-the-eye of the fans and punditry alike as potential ‘bolters’ for Wallaby selection.
For me, there are five such players currently, who, if their current Super Rugby form continues should be names seriously considered by the selectors when the 30-man squad for Rugby World Cup 2019 is announced later in the year. These are Queensland Reds hooker Alex Mafi, New South Wales hooker Damien Fitzpatrick, Queensland Reds halfback Tate McDermott, ACT Brumby back rower Lachie McCaffrey and finally veteran Queensland Reds backrower Scott Higginbotham.
I am an advocate of taking three hookers to a World Cup and Folau Fainga’a’s form should ensure he is the first choice Wallaby rake. Yet it is the final two hooking vacancies that Alex Mafi and Damien Fitzpatrick could fill due to their defence and reliability at the set piece, in particular, the lineout.
Tell me the Wallabies don’t need to improve in those departments!
The Queensland Reds had struggled at the lineout in the earlier rounds of the season with 4-test Wallaby Brandon Paenga-Amosa starting and Mafi coming off the bench for rounds 2,3 and 4. In those rounds, the Reds’ lineout operated at an average of 78% efficiency. Since the roles have been reversed in the previous two rounds the Queensland Reds lineout has operated at a near 93% efficiency and interestingly won both of those matches. Surely the Mafi inclusion to the starting role has contributed to such a turnaround in fortune for Brad Thorn’s men.
Yet it is not only Mafi’s contribution at the lineout that has been a feature of his game, his defence is steadfast, to say the least, illustrated against the Highlanders in round 2 when he made a try-saving tackle near his own line after running down a would-be try scorer when a try appeared inevitable. It is this type of defensive desperation that lifts a side and attracts selectors. Mafi seldom misses a tackle which makes him a reliable selection.
Whilst the uncapped Mafi may not have the running game of some of his contemporaries it is his lineout throwing and defence that could entice the selectors to his services later in the season as no doubt these are areas in which the Wallabies require improvement in if they are to go deep into the Rugby World Cup.
Resilience is a character trait that all teams should aspire to have and there would be fewer personifications of such in Australian rugby than Waratahs hooker Damien Fitzpatrick. The 29-year-old product of the famous ‘Wallaby factory’, St. Josephs College Hunters Hill in Sydney is playing his best rugby after coming back from a 4th knee reconstruction.
Fitzpatrick’s resilience coupled with his lineout throwing and defensive work rate should firmly put him in the minds of Wallaby selectors. Whilst the errant Tolo Latu and ageing Totafu Polota-Nau may be favourites of Michael Cheika, a prudent selector should be looking at a hooker whose lineout is currently operating at 90% for this season, is disciplined and who frequently makes tackles into the double digits. I submit if Fitzpatrick maintains this trajectory it would difficult to leave him out of selection discussions.
Tate McDermott’s energy and ability to catch an opponent unaware makes him a constant threat whenever he is on the park. I first saw McDermott play reserve grade for the University of Queensland Rugby Club several seasons ago where he was understudy to current Reds teammate Moses Sorovi.
With respect to Moses then, and now, I was flummoxed as to how McDermott, the 2018 Australian Under 20’s halfback was not the first choice as he was consistently a threat around the recycle but could also pass crisply and importantly backed up as a support player. McDermott is a halfback who makes things happen around him akin to Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara. His performance against the Brumbies last weekend was indicative of such illustrating he was a greater threat than his more experienced opponent in 4-test Wallaby Joe Powell who is no slouch himself.
The issue for McDermott is that even if the Wallabies are to take three halfbacks to the Rugby World Cup, as they should, it appears McDermott has Genia, Phipps, Gordon, and Powell ahead of him. I suspect there would have to be a serious injury to one of those players before McDermott would be given any thoughtful consideration despite his qualities. McDermott’s World Cup may yet be in 2023 but if he continues to flash and dash his way around the Super Rugby parks this season, he could yet find himself on the plane.
Since the retirement of Wycliff Palu, Australian rugby has missed a genuine number 8 forward. The preferred selection method in recent years has been picking legendary open-side flanker David Pocock as the Wallaby 8 man yet this practice should cease with immediate effect as it is outdated and hinders the Wallaby set-piece, in particular, the lineout.
Lachlan McCaffrey could be the answer. A rugby journeyman of Sydney’s St. Ignatius College who has always had the potential to play international rugby but did not seem to get the break that potential required when at the Waratahs and Western Force. However, McCaffrey for the Brumbies in 2019 has proven to be a reliable, forceful ball runner, astute lineout forward with a high work rate coupled and vision for space on the field. He simply is playing his best ever rugby on Australian soil.
Undoubtedly McCaffrey’s experience at London Welsh and Leicester Tigers have chiselled him into a player who not only has the potential but now has demonstrated the requisite maturity and toughness to put himself into the frame for Wallaby selection in 2019. That is the style of number 8 forward the Wallabies would need when taking on the likes of Wales in the pool stage of the tournament.
Another whose recent Super Rugby form could put him into the back equation is 34-test veteran, Scott Higginbotham. Gone is the ‘Wild Man of Borneo’ look and along with it the errors and stupidity of his game allowing the ageing Queenslander to be a consistent, credible performer for the Reds.
The Higginbotham of old was equally brilliant as he was errant. He no longer has the speed to employ his kick chase game but looking at how he operates around the park now is evident he is a mature, experienced campaigner who knows where to be and what to do for his team.
The former Reds skipper may appear on an edge to claim a try or charge through the fringe of a ruck to maintain momentum. Each being the correct decision at the time and not costing his side. What has truly impressed me about Higginbotham in 2019 is that the high tackles, pushed passes and high body position into contact that were an unfortunate aspect to his game previously appear to have decreased. Whilst never appearing to be on Michael Cheika’s World Cup radar, Higginbotham could be on Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor’s if he continues to age as a vintage red should.
Watch the Heineken Champions Cup Final live on RugbyPass throughout Asia and Australia.