The days of the ‘bolter’ are long gone. Consider this: the great Wallaby hooker Phil Kearns was not even deemed good enough to play first XV rugby at Newington College; when he donned the famous green-and-gold jersey for the first time in 1989, he jumped straight from the backwater of reserve grade footy at Randwick to do it. He leapfrogged the incumbent first team hooker Eddie Jones in the process. Kearns never looked back, winning 46 consecutive caps en route to his second World Cup six years later.
Nowadays, that is mere romantic whimsy. ‘The bolter’ was an anachronism which belonged firmly to an amateur age. In the professional era, all talent is identified, catalogued and groomed well before it ever reaches the elite echelon of rugby, in the academies and at age-group level. There is no room for a Phil Kearns to suddenly appear, and carry all before him in the epoch of the all-seeing analytical eye.
Yet, Australia is now in the unaccustomed position of wanting, even needing an outside-half to come out of nowhere, should its veteran navigator Quade Cooper prove unable to shake off a serious injury to his calf and ankle in time for the World Cup in September.
At least the Brumbies’ Noah Lolesio now has 17 national caps under his belt. The other young contenders – Tane Edmed and Ben Donaldson from the Waratahs, and Carter Gordon of the Rebels – have next to nothing, no credit in the bank at the top level. The selection of any of them ahead of the global showpiece in only six months’ time would involve a sizeable leap of faith.
Of the trio, it is Carter Gordon who has made the most promising start to Super Rugby Pacific 2023. As a callow 19-year-old, Gordon closed his eyes, took a deep breath and made the decision to leave family and friends behind and drive from Queensland down to Victoria with his brother Mason. There were no guarantees, but by the end of the 2021 Super Rugby AU season he was already starting matches for the Melbourne Rebels.
The presence of veteran pivot Matt To’omua at the club offered a wise head in support and was critical to his development:
“He [To’omua] has been instrumental for me.
“He’s had that experience at Wallabies level and has helped me massively giving me little tips to work on. He’s just one of the boys so he has confidence in me and backing me the whole way.
“I’ve always had pretty good communication but I feel like it’s been a step [up] for me that I’m bossing the likes of ‘Pup’ (To’omua) and the boys around.
“However, I feel like now I’ve got the trust and the boys back me so I’m happy to get in there and tell the boys where they need to be.”
Now Gordon has 23 caps for the Rebels and his assurance in the spot is beginning to show. It is not a complete picture by any means, but the green shoots of growth are unmistakable.
The best [flyhalves] pass and kick equally well to both sides, and that keeps the defence honest.
One of the key performance indicators for the assessment of an up-and-coming young No 10 is the ability to run an attack equally well in both directions., left and right. They can too often be heavy-handed, with a significant bias to plays going right-to-left. The best (like Stephen Larkham, the top Wallaby flyhalf of the professional era) pass and kick equally well to both sides, and that keeps the defence honest.
The same was true of Ireland’s Ronan O’Gara, now coaching so intelligently in La Rochelle. As an analyst for Wales back in the 2005 Grand Slam season, I discovered that Ireland were actually more effective running from left to right, and much of their success was down to the outstanding quality of O’Gara’s passing to that side. He had a deft touch on the short passes and he could rifle the ball straight to the edge. Add Brian O’Driscoll on the outside arc and Geordan Murphy’s picking exquisite lines off him, and it was a heady, potent brew – and a real headache for the defence.
Carter Gordon has already shown plenty of facility in this respect, most especially in the last two rounds of Super Rugby Pacific– against the NSW Waratahs at home (a 34-27 win for the Rebels), and most recently versus the Chiefs in Hamilton (a competitive 25-44 loss).
Gordon was unafraid of running the ball out of his own 22 against New South Wales, right from the beginning of the match:
It’s only a short transfer, but the basic building blocks are there: the confidence to pass close to the defender and hence right on the advantage line and the willingness to pay a price and take the hit in order to bring his outsides on to the ball.
It is that aggressive desire to play close to the line which helps immeasurably to connect the forwards and backs in attack:
When you’re making play in the teeth of the defence, any offloads you manufacture really count:
Gordon himself converted that position into a score shortly afterwards:
The break that illustrated his effectiveness moving left-to-right on attack best came in the Round 4 game against the Chiefs:
On first phase, Gordon is delivering an accurate skip pass to the forwards outside him to commit the Chiefs in midfield, and on the following play, their two centres find themselves exposed to the attacking shape which is so difficult for modern defences to handle.
Gordon has two potential runners coming from a position directly behind him, and when Chiefs No 13 Alex Nankivell commits to the man directly ahead, he is free to make a deftly-weighted pass to put the first of the pair, Wallabies jack-of-all-trades Reece Hodge into the hole. The Rebels converted the opportunity into a try shortly afterwards.
Even when Gordon was technically moving from right to left on attack, he was still delivering the ‘money ball’ off his left hand:
It is classic Larkham. A subtle change of angle deals to the Chiefs defence around the tail of the lineout, the in-pass to blindside wing Lachie Anderson creates the break, and centre Stacey Ili provides the finish in support.
Much of the same thinking applies to the kicking game as it does to the pass. Right-footed kickers often find it harder to kick towards the right sideline accurately, but Gordon’s length and accuracy off the boot only seems to increase on left-to-right punts:
In the first instance, Gordon is able to find the 50/22 turnover lineout from a position inside his own 40-metre line, in the second the accuracy of his punt forces the Waratahs into a very awkward defensive posture near their own goal line on defence.
Carter Gordon bears probably the closest physical resemblance to Stephen Larkham of any Australian outside half since rugby turned professional in 1995. Both are six foot two inches tall, about 90 kilos in weight and wiry-strong to boot. If anything, Gordon is the more aggressive of the pair in defence, as his two stops on big Jed Holloway in the game against New South Wales proved. The second occurred only two metres from the Rebels’ goal line, one-on-one, and Gordon did the business.
He doesn’t have Larkham’s tactical mastery or his decision-making nuance in the balance between kick, pass and run yet, but he has made an impressive start to 2023, make no mistake about it. He may be the best of the young pretenders to king Quade Cooper’s throne, and the closest to a ‘bolter’ you are likely to see in a professional age when the development of young players is monitored so intently. It may only be a slight breeze of romance in a cloudless empirical world, but it may be enough to carry the Rebels’ young tyro all the way to France in September.
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