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FEATURE Why Noah Lolesio could be on the cusp of seizing Australia's No 10 jersey

Why Noah Lolesio could be on the cusp of seizing Australia's No 10 jersey
1 year ago

The glossy black front door of Number 10 Downing Street is one of the most famous portals in the UK. Over the past seven years, it has been more akin to one of those huge, revolving doors you find at the entrance to a big hotel – just as likely to turn a full 360 degrees and spit the resident out on the pavement whence they came.

David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak have come, and bar the current Prime Minister, they have disappeared over the horizon well before the natural term of their office expired.

It is much the same story at the pivotal number 10 spot for the Wallabies. Many have come and gone for different reasons: in recent times Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley, James O’Connor, Noah Lolesio and Ben Donaldson have all entered the building without establishing any more than squatting rights. None have had time to call in the interior designers or change the furniture to their taste.

That may be about to change; James O’Connor returned to action after a long-term injury in the Reds’ narrow loss to the Brumbies at GIO Stadium over the weekend and Carter Gordon enjoyed a noticeably positive impact in the Rebels win over the Waratahs in Melbourne.

But perhaps the biggest winner in round three of Super Rugby Pacific was not O’Connor or Gordon but a beloved son of Canberra, Noah Lolesio. Lolesio suffered has probably more than any other of the No 10s from the lack of touches at first receiver afforded to the outside half in the dying embers of the Dave Rennie era.

Wallabies Jones No10 selection
Youngsters Noah Lolesio and Ben Donaldson both featured for the Wallabies in the infamous loss to Italy in 2022. (Photo by Timothy Rogers/Getty Images)

In the November tour game between the Wallabies and Italy at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence, Lolesio had fewer touches at first receiver than either second row Will Skelton or inside centre Hunter Paisami. That trend was mirrored in the number of involvements for James O’Connor in San Juan in the second game of the 2022 Rugby Championship against Argentina, and in Quade Cooper’s diminishing influence on the game that preceded it – only three touches at first receiver in the 47 minutes that he was on the field.

Dave Rennie’s comments after the match in San Juan echoed increasingly like a cry in the dark as his time in charge rolled towards its end:

“We thought his [O’Connor’s] experience would be very important, and we wanted him to drive the ship, allow us to implement our plan, and we were pretty clunky. We lacked cohesion, so he’s missed out on selection.

“It’s such a massive position for us, isn’t it? There have certainly got to be opportunities over the next few weeks for someone to grab that position.”

As I commented at the time, “The question now looks different after the debacle in Florence: how can you drive the ship and create cohesion when you’re not the man handling the ball?”

Thankfully, help has come from off the field in Super Rugby Pacific 2023. The return of Stephen Larkham as head coach of the Brumbies has not only resulted in a more open attacking philosophy and more offensive involvements for the back three, it has reinvigorated life at No 10 for Lolesio.

It’s an armchair ride [for me] at the moment. Dan set up everything perfectly.

Stephen Larkham on his return to the Brumbies head coaching role

Larkham is fast turning out to be the right man at just the right time to give Lolesio’s career the shove in the back it so urgently needed. In the process, he is becoming probably the most important coaching ingredient to Wallabies success at the 2023 World Cup, even without ever becoming a member of Eddie Jones’ staff.

Larkham himself was characteristically understated, paying tribute to the groundwork laid by Dan McKellar and returning contact coach Laurie Fisher after the match at GIO Stadium:

“It’s an armchair ride [for me] at the moment. Dan set up everything perfectly.

“I’m just sitting in here with the other coaches letting the players do the job.

“We’ve got a really good playing group, we’ve got unbelievable staff and it’s in a really good place at the moment, this organisation.”

In former Wallabies No 10 Stephen Larkham, Noah Lolesio has a useful mentor in Canberra. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The implied (but unstated) version is that Stephen Larkham is the ideal coach-philosopher to build on the foundations built by two forward organizers like McKellar and Fisher, who are respectively, lineout and breakdown specialists. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”, and the ex-Munster coach can fine-tune the instrument for Noah Lolesio to play.

Take a look at the raw stats for the Brumbies flyhalf’s performance against Queensland. Lolesio enjoyed 24 touches at first receiver, divided amongst 14 passes, nine kicks and one run. He had four total line breaks or tackle busts and one further line-break assist to his name. You can add two tackles which led directly to turnovers on defence, just for good measure.

For any ‘fake news’ devotees who still believe that Nic White can only function in an attack where he is the main man, it offered a sharp reminder that the scrumhalf is quite capable of playing the role of provider on the pass in an offence based on 10 and 12, just as he did during his four years at the Exeter Chiefs in the UK.

Lolesio’s contestable kicking game was right on the money, and he used it to torment his opposite number Tom Lynagh and the rest of the Queensland backfield:

In the first instance, the young Brumbies playmaker neatly steps around the onrushing Harry Wilson before delivering an inch-perfect cross-field bomb on to Lynagh; in the second the victim is Queensland left wing Filipo Daugunu, with Andy Muirhead winning the battle to regather the ball.

Lolesio also manhandled his opposite number after Lynagh had swapped positions with Hunter Paisami, only for the Reds centre to have his clearing kick charged down:

That turnover was a small but bitter irony, given the amount of time the Wallabies spent with their number 12 playing at first receiver in November.

The real source of improvement is the confidence Stephen Larkham is instilling in his youthful No 10 – and in the Canberra backline as a whole – to run back ball from their own end when the opportunity presents itself:

It’s not great delivery off his left hand by Lolesio, but that is how he will learn to do it better – by having the ball in his hands more often, by getting the reps under his belt.

The more touches on the ball he receives, the quicker Stephen Larkham will find out what the ceiling to Lolesio’s talent really is:

First two touches going left, then a long pass going right before Len Ikitau runs over the top of the unfortunate Lynagh.

Lolesio went from strength to strength in the second period, making a clean break around Fraser McReight in the 58th minute before demonstrating his ability to find both the right target, and the correct weight of pass after overcalling for the ball from the forward pod in front of him:

Lolesio kept his forwards hard on task at the coal face until the perfect moment for a second over-call arrived on the 14th phase:

The comings and goings at the problematic first five-eighth spot for the Wallabies in the Dave Rennie era were as bewildering in their regularity as the changes of Prime Minister in England over the past few years.

Back in 2021, veteran navigator Quade Cooper looked to be the answer to Dave Rennie’s prayers, but he was lost to a serious Achilles tendon injury at the very start of the 2022 Rugby Championship. Since then, a variety of bodies from different generations of the game have passed through the portal at No 10. Some are youthful, like the two 23-year-olds, Noah Lolesio and Ben Donaldson, who both represented Australia at the 2019 Junior World Cup.

Others come from an entirely different generation like James O’Connor and Bernard Foley, now both in their thirties. O’Connor played No 10 as long ago as 2013 for Robbie Deans’ side against the touring British and Irish Lions, while Foley’s career-high watermark arrived two years later, at the 2015 World Cup.

The fastest mover at this early stage of the Super Rugby season is Noah Lolesio. There are already distinct signs that Stephen Larkham’s tutelage is bearing fruit. The Wallabies legend is encouraging Lolesio to run the cutter and giving him the touches on the ball at first receiver that he needs in order to grow as a player.

Lolesio is being encouraged to run from deep when the opportunity arises and link with his outside backs. He has the ideal foil inside him at scrumhalf in Nic White, who knows how to clear up a mess at the base, and remains the best passing scrum-half in Australia. With O’Connor coming back to full fitness and Carter Gordon blossoming for the Rebels, it is just the kind of good news that Eddie Jones needs.


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