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FEATURE Will Noah Lolesio be spat out of the Wallabies' revolving fly-half door?

Will Noah Lolesio be spat out of the Wallabies' revolving fly-half door?
1 week ago

It is only one game into the Joe Schmidt era, but there is no sign of the flickering deja vu at number 10 stopping any time soon. The picture at fly-half for the new Australian coaching kingpin is less ‘sliding doors’, and more of an ever-spinning hotel entrance – the kind that spits visitors out at the same place they entered in those classic comedy sketches, like Peter Sellers’ ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’, complete with their luggage.

On Saturday evening at the Allianz Stadium in Sydney it was Noah Lolesio’s turn; or rather, his fifth turn in the driving seat. The young Brumbies pivot got his first chance to steer the ship under Dave Rennie in the July 2021 series against France, only to be replaced by a resurrected Quade Cooper midway through the Rugby Championship in September.

Australia Wallabies
Filipo Daugunu celebrates with Noah Lolesio after scoring a try during Australia’s win over Wales in Sydney (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Lolesio was back for the England tour the following year, then dropped for Cooper and fellow veteran James O’Connor in the first two rounds of the 2022 Rugby Championship; returning for the round three win over the Springboks; out of favour again for another ‘golden oldie’ [Bernard Foley] in the double-header versus the All Blacks which concluded the tournament.

Lolesio started one game on the end of year tour in 2022, a one-point loss to Italy which was the main catalyst for Rennie’s sacking and the knee-jerk appointment of Eddie Jones. The Brumby man did not play at all under Jones and was excluded from the 2023 World Cup squad which represented Australia in France.

That potted history is typical of the selectorial anguish the Wallabies have experienced at their key playmaking spot in recent times. Since Lolesio first pulled on the famous green-and-gold jersey only three seasons ago, no fewer than six different men have been picked to start at 10. The days of Stephen Larkham, Michael Lynagh and Mark Ella are a dim and distant memory, a ghostly echo of the stability that once was. Lolesio has already packed a career’s worth of heartache into his youthful frame at the tender age of 24.

Despite an encouraging overall start to his tenure, the first Test against Wales will have offered Schmidt precious few clues to the ultimate destination of the Wallaby number 10 jersey in the long term.

Australia did what Schmidt wanted, making 30 more carries than Wales, keeping the ball for 40 more phases and enjoying a full four extra minutes of possession inside the visitors’ red zone. So far, so good. Under Schmidt’s stewardship, the Wallabies will play more off nine than they do off 10. On Saturday evening, Jake Gordon had use of the ball in a ratio of roughly four-to-one compared to his half-back partner. For the visitors the ratio was two-to-one.

That makes what the 10 does when he has the chance to show his wares more important, rather than less. The defence will tend to condense in the area 5-10 metres either side of the ruck, so the 10 needs to be able to pull the trigger when he has the chance.

One of the issues for Lolesio and Schmidt is an over-reliance on the kicking game in those critical moments. The most obvious instance occurred in the 61st minute, with only five points separating the teams.

 

Although Andrew Kellaway is free out on the right, the cross-kick is surplus to requirements when the Wallabies’ most dangerous runner, full-back Tom Wright, is in acres of space only one simple pass away. Just give it, and run in support.

The choice of play even drew the ire of Tim Horan in Stan Sport’s commentary booth, and the ex-Wallaby centre is typically the last man to criticise those wearing the green and gold for the plays they don’t make.

“I don’t think there was any need for that [kick].

“There were others there. Keep the ball in hands when you have three-on-three – you can beat a defender from five [metres] out and you’re over. Low-percentage play from Noah.”

Schmidt quite naturally sprang to his playmaker’s defence at the post-match press conference:

“It would have been great if we’d scored. If it was on his fingertips, if it was perfect, I would be delighted.

“If he’d kicked it perfectly, I don’t think we’d be discussing it. We probably would discuss it and say, ‘Wow, what a great option!’

“It’s the fine margins in the game, isn’t it? If you get an option, you take it and you execute it right. There was a space there, absolutely. Andrew Kellaway scores if the kick is spot on, and it wasn’t far off.”

Another instance of the ‘automatic’ kick-pass had already occurred in similar circumstances earlier in the game.

 

Australia have just won turnover and are playing under advantage. All Lolesio needs to do to convert advantage into line-break, is notice Josh Flook steaming up on his right, then put him into a yawning hole with the short pass. The cross-kick is unnecessary but Lolesio does not appear aware of the options with ball in hand.

The point was rammed home when Queenslander Tom Lynagh came off the bench for the last 17 minutes.

 

The son of Aussie great Michael is quite prepared to play ‘simple hands’ and give Wright the opportunity to exploit a three-on-three situation from kick return. There does not even have to be an obvious hole in the defence. The broad strokes of a sharp contrast in philosophy can be viewed in the micro-detail of the game.

The other worry for Schmidt is Lolesio’s tendency to disappear as an attacking influencer from more prolonged phase-counts. At one 19-phase, three-minute sequence starting in the 48th minute, the forwards carried on 14 occasions, Gordon sniped twice from the base, and Wright and Hunter Paisami handled at first receiver three times between them. Lolesio did not direct the play once from his nominal spot in the team.

The short-hand can be viewed at a nine-phase sequence in the 16th minute.

 

The launch play from lineout is a switch between 12 Paisami and 11 Filipo Daugunu, followed by two forward drives out to the open-side of the field. Now you would be expecting Lolesio to stamp his authority on proceedings when the ball comes back to the near-side, right? Wrong. After another forward drive back to the left, it is Paisami who takes control at first receiver, not his fly-half.

When the ball is spun out to the right again, Wright is in pole playmaking position.

 

Another two phases pass with Lolesio haunting the murky backdrop and Wales inching ever closer to achieving turnover. The prophecy finally materialised, the sequence finishing with the Brumbies 10 never having had hands on ball in the prime distributing role.

 

After one sharp snipe from lineout by Gordon, Lolesio got more pay from assuming the half-back role and cleaning out on the following phase.

 

 

By the time Lolesio has extricated himself from cleanout duty, neither he nor Lukhan Salakaia-Loto are in any position to receive the ball on the right touchline. Lolesio eventually made a pass from first receiver on sixth phase, and Taniela Tupou promptly dropped the ball in surprise.

Waratahs’ scrum-half Gordon – the senpai to Lolesio’s k?hai – was suitably protective of the younger man in his comments after the game.

“We had a pretty short run into the first game, and I think the expectation was that it was never going to be perfect,” he said.

“Rugby’s never perfect, but I thought for the majority, we [the halfback combination] played at the right ends of the field, our distribution was strong and, yeah, I’ve enjoyed playing with Noah and I thought he was strong.”

There were many aspects of Schmidt’s first game in charge of the Wallabies that a true blue, green-and-gold supporter would have enjoyed: Geoff Parling’s lineout was strong, winning over 90% of its own feed and stealing four balls on the Welsh throw; the scrum was dominant, at least for the 41 minutes Tupou lasted on the Wallaby tight-head. Australian ball control in possession was good, allowing only two pilfers in 118 rucks and shutting a poacher as proficient as Tommy Reffell out of the game.

But Schmidt will be only too aware of the areas which need improvement. Finding ways to involve the best Australian goal-kicker in Super Rugby Pacific more effectively as a play-maker, and making better decisions when he arrives, will be at the very top of his list of priorities.

If Lolesio cannot achieve a more rounded connection with the forwards in front of him, and the backs outside him, his fifth stint in the 10 shirt may prove to be as brief a flirtation as the other four. The Wallaby head honcho may not have a Johnny Sexton or a Richie Mo’unga to work with, but he knows the endless comings and goings at number 10 need to stop.

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Comments

107 Comments
H
HiKa 6 days ago

G’day Nick. I’m a bit late to this piece, but thought I’d stick my oar in. The moment that crystallized Lolesio’s limitations for me was 68 minutes into the Brumbies’ SRP SF loss to the Blues. The Brumbies had compressed the Blues defence on their line with a bunch of pick and drives to the left of the posts. With a penalty advantage, they shifted it to the backs and with a gaping hole to run into himself and his winger unmarked out wide, Lolesio had no zip to threaten the line himself and botched the transfer to Muirhead. Reimer drove over next phase but it was garbage from Lolesio.
Young Lynagh’s goal kicking percentage wasn’t great this year but he carried a leg injury through most of the season so I suspect he wasn’t practicing as much as he’d want to. His technique is good and a lot of his misses were into the posts or only just away. As Gary Player famously said about his habit of sinking bunker shots: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” I expect Lynagh’s goal kicking to be every bit as good as Lolesio’s or even better in the near future and his general play is superior. But nobody wants to see Lynagh playing big minutes against the Boks and AB’s this year.

A
Adrian 8 days ago

Perhaps the questions about Lolesio were answered?

What do you think Nick?

M
Mzilikazi 11 days ago

Noah is getting his chance to get settled under Schmidt, as I see he has been retained for the second Wales game. He looks small, but I see he stands at 1.8m and weighs 89 kgs. Ben Donaldson looks bigger, but only is marginally taller at 1,84m and lighter at 84 kgs. Tom Lynagh is the smallest of the three, at 1.78m and 83 kgs. But at only 21, he may well end up significantly heavier. Gone for now, Carter Gordon is 1.89m and 93 kgs. Ofc, height and weight are not so significant for a ten, but it is a useful point of difference. For example, Handre Pollard at 1.89m and 98 kgs is just that bit more robust carrying into contact and in the tackle.

As you say, Nick, Noah is our best goal kicker. But he does need to read the game better to cement his place, react to the full gambit of opportunities around him. In these sub Top Five contests, Australia has a potent backline, capable of carving up any opposition.

T
Tom 11 days ago

Good insight Nick. It’s a genuinely ambivalent situation.
I wonder who the worst fly half in the best team is in rugby recent history (i.e. team achieves a lot despite average 10)…any ideas? Wallabies 2015 WC?

S
Shaylen 11 days ago

So basically he is a young 10 who prefers to go to the boot than put the ball through the hands either because he doesnt have the vision or confidence to do so. He kicks his goals and is relatively accurate with the boot in open play but lacks the game awareness or attributes to really make the coach’s gameplan happen. Sounds like a typical South African 10. If only they had Carter Gordon to call upon now. I reckon he deserves a chance to bed in this year at least and they need to give him the time and space to do so. He is a young lad with plenty of potential but he needs to grow up. He is no longer the young star struck 20 year old out there on the pitch against the best in the world playing with his idols. He needs to make the step up. Schmidt may want to consider giving him a bench role though in the long term. He could become a useful impact player. A 10 who can come on and kick his goals and win territory in the last 20 mins when you are trying to control the game is worth its weight in gold.

O
Otagoman II 12 days ago

One thing I noted with T Wright’s try was his teammate drawing the attention of the outer Welsh defender. Was it Kellaway? It was a good example of off the ball work that gave Wright a better chance of making that big break.

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Otagoman II 12 days ago

Noah still seems a little bit like a babe in the woods. He needed to take the reins at the Brumbies a couple of seasons ago. There is still time for him to do it but the clock is ticking.

d
d 12 days ago

Thanks Nick. Was impressed with Gordon at 9 and liked watching a team with an actual game plan. Even I noticed Noah’s absence during a few of the long phase attacks. Is this something Joe will simply work with him on or is it more concerning? I’d like him to be given more of a chance if possible. The rest of the backs seemed to do their jobs

N
Nick 12 days ago

Nice piece Nick. I think its a bit early to be making calls on any player or the wallabies writ large given they only had about 4 days of training in the leadup to this match. As you say the wallabies got their basics right, now they can build from the foundation and start to put some glitter on top. The crossfield kick seemed to be a tactic from schmidt, and as you say in the NZ article its a legit tactic to counteract the rush (maybe we will see a change up in this tactic for game 2 - beware wales). You can clearly see noah steering the ship in that long phase count you mention which is encouraging, but I agree that we need to see him want the ball more in a period of time like that. Wallabies have long gone for the flashy 10 that carves teams up. Lolesio seems more in the mould of a pollard game manager type where he gets the ball where it needs to go but he isn’t the one necessarily pulling the trigger. If we can get pay from the likes of wright, hunter, gordon maybe its not needed from noah but time will tell. The fact is there isn’t really anyone else with gordon gone, donaldson unconvincing to me, and lynagh just too green! I’d give noah the keys for most of this season tbh (and that goes for the whole squad in terms of pick and stick) and let the combinations build. The attack always takes longer to come on, lets be patient! Someone made the comparison that he isn’t the player sexton is without a hint of irony that sexton only debuted at the age of 24 and had 10 odd years experience before he became the player we know him as now. On another note, what did you think of L wright?

j
john 12 days ago

Good of you to point out how hopeless Rennie was as a coach. Schmidt is looking exactly the same. Nothing has changed that I can see so far.

It is only a matter of time before Schmidt brings in one of the Tah’s pets, like Donaldson.
Mark my word. It’s the classic kiwi coaching ploy in Australia.

Make it impossible for one of the more successful Australia players to succeed, then switch the team around almost every week, for an excuse to bring in another Tah pet. I wonder if Schmidt will also stoop to playing players out of position like Deans and Rennie did ?

We have seen all this before from kiwi coaches. Over and over and over.

Not surprisingly very few of the Rebel players want to play for the Toxic Tahs. Kellaway is going home but apparently all the rest want out.

All I saw was box kick after box kick after box kick and penalty after penalty after penalty. The old kiwi coach and Laurie Fisher obsessive kiwi cheating game plan. Woohoo, that’ll bring the crowds in ……

The Brumbies have just collapsed and come under RA control because Laurie Fisher’s obsession with the kiwi game plan of obsessive cheating under pressure has turned so many Canberrans off going to watch them they are no longer viable.

Things are looking so rosy aren’t they ? You can only keep your head in the sand for so long.

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