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FEATURE Noah Lolesio spearheads Brumbies with Wallaby axe to grind

Noah Lolesio spearheads Brumbies with Wallaby axe to grind
3 months ago

What do Lachlan and Ryan Lonergan, Caderyn Neville, Darcy Swain, Noah Lolesio, Len Ikitau and Tom Wright have in common? Yes, they are all Brumbies players – but more importantly, they are all Brumbies who were excluded from Wallaby selection for the World Cup.

Neville, Ikitau and Wright were first choices for previous coach Dave Rennie, but all were pushed from the centre to the periphery by successor Eddie Jones when he took over at the beginning of last year. The circumstances surrounding several omissions were nebulous, to say the least.

Ryan Lonergan was a part of every Wallaby squad selected by Jones, until the final one that really mattered. Ikitau, one of the foremost outside centres in world rugby and one of the few truly blue-chip players available to the new head honcho, was excluded on injury grounds when other injured backs, such NSW back-three Max Jorgensen, were picked. As the Canberra man told rugby.com.au afterwards: “I was in contact with the doctor and they had me on a conditioning programme for a couple of weeks. They had this one-off Wallabies training if you were based in Brisbane. It was myself, Quade [Cooper], Taniela [Tupou] and the rest of the Brisbane boys.

Eddie Jones chose not to select Len Ikitau for last year’s Rugby World Cup (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“When they said they were announcing, they were going to call all the players the night before, and it wasn’t until 9.30 pm when I thought ‘what the hell is going on?’

“I get a message from ‘Webby’ [team manager Chris Webb] ‘get in touch with Eddie, he’ll let you know what your plans are’. I was like: ‘does that mean I’m not in the squad?’ and he confirmed [that it was].”

“I was just disappointed at the comms I received. A good head coach would have called you and told you why you weren’t in the team, but at the end of the day we got the manager doing the rounds.

“I was disappointed with that and the reasoning [behind it]. [They said] they didn’t want to take injured players [but] there were three or four injured guys in there.

“It was quite disappointing – at least be honest [about] the reason I wasn’t in the team.”

In the event, only six Brumbies were selected in Jones’ squad of 33, one fewer than the number picked from both the Queensland Reds and the Melbourne Rebels, and two fewer than the eight New South Welshmen. It was a strange distribution, given the Brumbies were the top-ranked Australian franchise in Super Rugby Pacific, and the only Aussie club to advance to the semi-final stage. As far as trans-Tasman rivalry goes, the Australian flag has been flying proudest in Canberra for most of the last decade.

The Ponies were born out of a natural sense of grievance as the ‘third province’ behind New South Wales and Queensland, and they have always thrived and drawn strength from their station as an outcast defying the odds. That will be especially true now, as the sweepings from Jones’ World Cup debacle are pored over and forensically re-examined by a very different new head man, Kiwi Joe Schmidt.

The ex-Ireland coach has already demonstrated his commitment to the breakdown with the reappointment of Brumbies specialist ‘Lord’ Laurie Fisher, and several players from the franchise will come back into consideration simply because of their diligence in that area of the game.

The three Brumbies backs who stand to benefit from Schmidt’s arrival immediately are Ikitau, Lolesio and Tom Wright. Lolesio spent the latter portion of 2023 with RC Toulon in the Top 14, as a ‘joker’ covering the absence of Welshman Dan Biggar during the World Cup. Like Ikitau, Lolesio was left dumbstruck by Jones’ World Cup picks.

Noah Lolesio has returned from a short stint in Toulon with renewed vigour and enthusiasm for the game (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

“When I found out that I wasn’t going to the World Cup, it was very disappointing,” he said. “When I was in France and they told us the squad, I was even angrier. Not just for myself, but for other [Canberra] boys that should have been in there as well. It was a frustrating time.”

He struck up an unlikely alliance with Welsh demigod Alun Wyn Jones at the club, and that prompted the 24 year-old to remember his reasons for playing the game in the first place.

“He was sort of like my dad when I was over there. I wasn’t expecting him to be so down to earth considering his resumé…

“The one thing I got the most out of my time in Toulon is just the enjoyment of footy and seeing how many people actually love the game over there.”

“It was just very refreshing for me to be in a different country, a different rugby environment; different rugby style of play, different lifestyle. It helped [me rediscover] my love of the game.”

The cut-throat nature of Top 14 competition – it is the only Tier One professional tournament which still applies promotion and relegation – demands ice-veined goalkicking, and Lolesio has returned from Europe as the best Australia has to offer in that department. He currently sits at 83% conversion rate, with 19 successful kicks out of 23 attempted after round five of Super Rugby.

With the ball in play, the most intriguing aspect is the relationship Lolesio has forged with full-back Wright. The obvious synergy between the pair on attack may yet carry both back in on the tide, from the periphery into the very centre of Schmidt’s Wallaby planning.

Wright and Lolesio have a natural urge to combine on a rugby field, and when they do the result is more than the sum of the individual parts. The following clips come from the round five demolition of Moana Pasifika.

 

The natural play on this kick return, and the option preferred by Brumbies number 11 Corey Toole, is clearly to shift the ball further out to the open-side wing. But Wright chooses to bend his run back towards Lolesio instead, and create a line-break assist for his brother-in-arms.

The synergy between the two multiplied as the half wore on.

This clip describes just how intuitively Lolesio and Wright combine in their decision-making before the next phase ever materialises. As he retires from the previous play, Lolesio is already scanning the narrow side for weaknesses – and he likes what he sees. Wright is called over from the open-side to the blind to provide the cutting edge, and the 10 sets him up for the break against an overmatched Moana Pasifika forward.

When the pair move, they tend to shift together, as if bonded by the invisible thread of a shared idea.

 

Both Lolesio and Wright are stacked behind the ruck as the ball is won, and both shift instinctively over to the short-side as the next phase unwinds. It is noticeable try scorer Corey Toole also has an invite to the Wright/Lolesio WhatsApp group, and appears very much on the same page.

When your two primary play-makers and your main finisher are all riding the same zeitgeist, distances and field position mean much less with ball in hand, because the understanding is so well knitted together.

 

Wright sees the space out to the wide right and relays his ‘spot’ to Lolesio, and Toole makes the killing break before linking back inside to – you guessed it –Wright for a canter to the sticks.

One of the big differences between Lolesio pre- and post-his Top 14 experience in France is that revived enjoyment has simultaneously unlocked a new confidence. That self-belief had virtually evaporated by the end of the Rennie era. Lolesio only enjoyed five touches at first receiver in the one-point defeat by Italy in November 2022. That was fewer than both a second-row [Will Skelton] and a centre [Hunter Paisami].

It was soul-crushing stuff. But on Saturday evening, Lolesi had 13 touches at first receiver and another four at second. The trust and trajectory of a promising career is being restored.

 

As soon as the referee calls a penalty to the Brumbies, Lolesio calls the flat line of chase for a short chip. Number 13 Hudson Creighton duly gets the first touch and finishes the move after another important involvement by Toole on the right.

That highlighted the returning confidence to back himself and vary the play by using Wright as a decoy.

 

There is an option to spread the ball wider and pick out Wright on the second pass in another penalty advantage play, but Lolesio prefers to set up big raw-boned Charlie Cale on the in-pass instead.

Several Brumbies will be walking ‘Redemption Road’ as the Jones era ends, and the Schmidt epoch begins. Historically, Brumbies always go best when they have an axe to grind. They will be chippy and focused, an underdog ready to turn the tables. It is the Nic White in them coming out. And just like ‘Whitey’, rather more than a couple of them are quite capable of becoming mainstays in Schmidt’s brave new Wallaby world.

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Comments

57 Comments
D
Daniel 114 days ago

Nice article absolutely spot on in my opinion.
Noah wasn’t coping with Test duty but he’s back, he is the best 10 we have and one of the most complete union players in Aus how Ben Donaldson got on the plane before him is nothing short of farcical.
FU EJ and HM you mutts.

D
Derek Murray 117 days ago

It was a pleasure to watch those guys playing with such confidence. That trio can all be infuriating for different reasons and I can see why Jones might have decided against them.

No way to justify leaving Ikitau out though. Jorgensen and him were both scheduled to return at the same time. Only one of them plays for Randwick and has a dad who is great mates with the national coach though.

m
mitch 119 days ago

Hi Nick, any chance of an analysis of what to expect style wise from Schmidt? Tight play like his time with Ireland or could we see a more attacking mindset with the Wallabies?

J
Jon 119 days ago

One of the big differences between Lolesio pre- and post-his Top 14 experience in France is that revived enjoyment has simultaneously unlocked a new confidence.
That probably highlights the weakness of Rennie, were as, at the Chiefs at least, he had someone with the attitude of Aaron Cruden to let lead the side.
I commented on this game in the last article, a few of these plays were pretty tiny but it was good to watch and is the sort of play you normally see Kiwi teams pull off. Will be another prospect against better sides (no disrespect to MP who had their own game/style), and the example of Wright in a yellow jersey lets everyone know how hard it is to be accepted when it doesn’t work, but I hope this team keeps up the playing style. Brumbies could slowly turn into a real threat with the ball again.

S
Shaylen 119 days ago

What Eddie Jones did to Australia and his selection choices was quite astonishing. He really did not give them a chance by casting aside so many players that have served Australia well and showed real promise during the Rennie era. Lolesio as a young kid was thrust into the very centre of the storm by Rennie and really he did quite well considering the pressure he was under. He never came to grips with the main role but he was young and still learning his trade. He now seems to be entering a new stage of his development. His kicking has improved, he reads the game better, makes better decisions with the ball and has that X-Factor that can bust a game open. He is an impressive playmaker who will only get better plus his defence is also improving all the time. He will become a very good flyhalf for Australia as he has all the potential and attributes needed to succeed in the international game

M
Mzilikazi 119 days ago

This game in Bne. is one where the coaches and analysts could win or lose the game, depending on how well the teams are prepared in the lead up week. And the psychological aspects are fascinating. The Reds coming off a loss to the Force, winning their first game of the season. The Brumbies coming off a strong win, but that over one of the weaker teams in SRP. A real test for the Kiss coaching team

A
Ardy 120 days ago

The battle for the leading 10 spot is going to be fascinating. Schmit has some genuine options and Lolesio on his return has proven he is one of them.

What is it with our rugby that talented youngsters lose confidence and are bagged by a bunch of know-a-little about union but a lot about league, some of whom are rugby writers?

Carter Gordon with a solid talent base has had his confidence undermined by a coach who has him getting the ball from time to time and standing well back in the pocket, Gordon is one of a few who can take the ball to the line and open them up.

j
john 120 days ago

I assumed Ikitau’s injury was a lot worse than they were letting on because he was probably the Wallabies best player. But no, it was just Tah fan Eddie Jones being an arse and making room for his Tah pets.

I really can’t see a bitter and twisted ascerbic kiwi like Schmidt barking orders from his smail in NZ being popular with Australian players. I really can’t. Sooner or later they will tell him to get nicked. Especially when he is inevitably told to start favouring Tah players by Horne and Waugh.

We have seen this movie before with Deans and Rennie. Schmidt is no different. He’s in it for the money just as they were because deep down, he really doesn’t want the Wallabies to succeed either does he ?

Otherwise he would be a traitor wouldn’t he ?

d
d 120 days ago

Great to see Noah performing well. The French trip with AWJ does seem to have helped. He also seems to have more control without Nic White? It is also easier for a 10 to play well behind forwards that are winning the ball.

In terms of a Wallaby spot, can you see Noah controlling the game at that level?

E
Ed the Duck 120 days ago

All fine players for sure Nick and their omission was bizarre, to say the least. But the main question is this; would their inclusion have turned Australia in to World Cup ‘probables’???

You know, would it have made them genuine contenders to lift the trophy?

Ps, did you read Grant Constables piece on Ireland’s near total dominance of the 6N…😉😂

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