Imagine yourself in a typical thriller movie scenario. You’re a top scientist held captive by a criminal mastermind, and he won’t let you go until you’ve designed the perfect X-factor rugby fullback. After months spent toiling in the secret laboratory, a prototype rolls out of the mist looking suspiciously like Tom Wright of the Brumbies.
That would be one natural outcome, and the evil mogul would probably be delighted with your work. Back in the real world, X-factor has to be yoked to more pragmatic requirements. The novella with its lyrical description of breaks made and miracle offloads delivered, has to be read alongside the research paper detailing defensive effectiveness in the air, on the ground and in contact.
You can be sure that Wallabies head honcho Eddie Jones will be reading both the art and the science avidly as he considers his selection at fullback at the World Cup. His pick at No 15 will go an awful long way to telling us what kind of team he wants to put on the field in France.
With Marika Koroibete a lock on the left wing, there will be only two other spots available to be divided among five main contenders – Jordie Petaia of the Reds, Mark Nawaqanitawase of the Waratahs, Andrew Kellaway and Reece Hodge of the Rebels, and Tom Wright.
At the back, Jones can opt for the most dangerous attacking weapon (Wright), the best defender, organiser and kicker (Hodge) or the in-between man with a bit of both (Kellaway). Petaia and his Queensland team-mate Jock Campbell may draw some oxygen on the fringes of the debate too.
Eddie is clearly following the progress of the dream prototype most keenly, and with plenty of justification. Only a couple of weeks ago, he declared that “Tom has the ability to be the world’s best fullback. That’s the challenge for him, how much more can he find?” He was eagerly supported by Wright’s coach in Canberra, Stephen Larkham: “At 25, he’s only coming into his prime now. There’s no doubt he has world-class attributes, and with more and more consistency, can be a pillar of success for this club moving forward.”
There has never been any doubt about Tom Wright’s ability to run with the ball and exploit space. Let’s take a look at the comparative stats from some of the contenders who played fullback in Super Rugby Pacific 2023:
Wright and Petaia are at the head of the attacking and counter-attacking queue, with the Brumbies man finishing top of the overall charts in metres run, eclipsing even such potent running threats as Mark Telea and Shaun Stevenson.
Tom Wright has been on a busy arc of improvement for some time now. On the November tour with the Wallabies, he was honing his skills as a provider on the pass, serving his wings on the counter and from set-piece:
This clip from the Brumbies’ quarter-final versus the Hurricanes features Tom Wright, not the nominal No 10 Jack Debreczeni as the key first receiver. Debreczeni is committed to the right-hand side, but Wright is in the ‘boot space’ behind the scrum and able to go either way.
With the defensive scrumhalf having to retire behind the last foot under the latest batch of law trials, Canes No 9 Cam Roigard is caught between a rock and the proverbial hard place when the fullback shifts left from the set-piece. He has to respect Wright’s breaking ability and cannot push off him too early, but that leaves the man outside him (Jordie Barrett) passive and lateral against the threat of Len Ikitau when Wright chooses to pass.
Tom Wright has also improved the quality of his kicking from hand measurably in 2023, to the point where he has overtaken the two Brumbies’ No 10s as the secondary kicker of choice behind the scrum-half duo of Nic White and Ryan Lonergan. Lonergan has made 58 kicks and White 54, but Wright’s 51 punts moved him ahead of both Debreczeni (35) and Lolesio (49). The stat represents the underlying reality that the full-back is trusted increasingly as a tactical kicking option:
In both cases, Wright finds space deep in the Hurricanes 22 and forces a scrambled exit from behind the goal line. That returned the game to the Brumbies’ greatest point of strength, with an attacking lineout throw in the opposition red zone.
Those are the opportunities represented by picking Tom Wright at fullback. The challenges begin mostly on defence, and first of all with defence of the ball in the air. Wind the clock back to the middle of 2022 and the second game of two between the Wallabies and Argentina. In San Juan, Wright was beaten to high, contestable kicks on three consecutive occasions in the first half alone. The last of the three nearly resulted in a breakaway try for the Pumas’ wing Emiliano Boffelli:
The quarter-final between the Brumbies and the Hurricanes showed that this is a lingering issue which has yet to be fully resolved:
Canes’ wing Dan Sinkinson reclaims the ball in the air ahead of Wright, then receives a facial massage for his pains. That draws a penalty in a dangerous position on the field.
It wasn’t just the contest for the aerial ball, it was also some of Wright’s decision-making in his own end against the kicking game which drew criticism from then-Australian head coach Dave Rennie. He summarized it events crisply in the post-match presser after the game in San Juan:
“They scored four tries with kicks – two in behind us and two in the air – so we didn’t do a good enough job around that. We created plenty of opportunities and weren’t clinical enough, or lacked a little bit of patience.”
X-factor players like to take risks even when the odds are against them, and this tendency does not always work out in Tom Wright’s favour:
In the first example, it looks very much like Tom Wright is calling for an offload from his retreating wing (Jordie Petaia) after the kick through, but the situation is primed for disaster and Juan Imhoff grabs the loose ball to run away for a soft try. If that is Reece Hodge or Andrew Kellaway, they are not calling for that pass to be made.
The second instance illustrates the kind of problems ex-leaguers can experience, in relation to judgment of the right moment to run the ball back on returns. It was the same for Jason Robinson with England back in the noughties: it took him the better part of three seasons to figure out when, and how to run the ball back without losing it in contact after the tackle. Wright ends up in an uncomfortable foetal curl, the now-defunct ‘squeeze-ball’ position and is promptly robbed on the deck by Du’Plessis Kirifi. No uncontested play-the-balls here, thank you.
Tom Wright may yet fulfil Eddie Jones’ prophecy and become the best fullback in the world, maybe even at the World Cup itself. But right now, there is still the shadow of a concern in the background: ‘How much more can he find?’ said the man himself. Even his Super Rugby coach Stephen Larkham sounded the chord of a qualification: ‘With more and more consistency, [he] can be a pillar of success for this club moving forward.’
“I do like Jordie Petaia there at fullback. He’s a big point-of-difference player and that’s what the Wallabies need.
“He’s confident and dominant in the air. He’s got more confidence in his body and he’s developed his kicking.
“Since I played with Jordie at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, I’ve been saying he’s going to be one of the best players in the world. I believe that and Eddie has that call to make.”
Maybe the Wallabies can get the same X-factor as Wright without making the same concessions in the air? Perhaps they can mitigate it with the selection of two 6’4” giants (Petiaa and Nawaqanitawase) as bookend wings? Or maybe, they can roll back to their most successful back-three combination of recent times, the 2021 Rugby Championship trio of Kellaway on the right, Marika on the left with Reece Hodge in between them? Eddie Jones doesn’t have any time to waste in order to find out. If Tom is indeed ‘the Man’ he needs to take the step up, and he needs to take it now.