Halfbacks galore and ‘find me a flyhalf’ are the instant takeaways from Australia’s plunge into the new Super Rugby Pacific season.
New Wallabies coach Eddie Jones lived up to one of his myriad nicknames as ‘Eddie Everywhere’ by covering over 4,000 kilometres on a single weekend to watch live more than 70 of the players in his talent pool.
Some made an immediate splash like fullback possibility Tom Wright, former sevens trump Corey Toole, inside centre Lalakai Foketi and lock Nick Frost. Others like centre Len Ikitau, backrower Rob Valetini and prop Allan Alaalatoa showed they’ll be just as integral to the Jones era as they were to Dave Rennie’s reign.
Teenagers Tommy Lynagh and Max Jorgensen swam with the big boys for the first time with such promise that the 2027 World Cup will be their sweet spot. Others showed they are still dog-paddlers in the shallow end with little chance of World Cup recognition if errors, not excellence, remain their lanes.
There is a different mood to Australian rugby which is a big part due to Jones being so prominently out and about.
He is four months away from winning or losing his first Test back in charge of the Wallabies so for all that time there will be a honeymoon period.
It’s that time where you just think of the good stuff, the progress he’s going to make, the visionary selection or two he’s going to spring and the hard work that will mean 40 minutes without a single dropped ball, scrum penalty or infringement.
There isn’t that perfect rugby at the end of the rainbow but right now there hasn’t been a dropped ball or discipline blooper.
Jones watched a high-quality ACT Brumbies v NSW Waratahs match in Sydney on a Friday night and by Saturday evening had found his way to Townsville to watch the Queensland Reds get well beaten by Ardie Savea’s Hurricanes.
In between, he even dropped in on a Reds’ supporters and sponsors luncheon in Townsville to outline his vision for 2023 and the hope that Australia’s best “go out and pick themselves” with big showings during Super Rugby.
Jones has always said that performing in the biggest, most intense club games carries double points in the selection room.
So what might Jones have seen during the opening salvos of Super Rugby Pacific?
He has inherited three Test halfbacks in Nic White, Tate McDermott and Jake Gordon but it was another No 9 altogether who stole the show in Round One.
Brumbies halfback Ryan Lonergan showed exactly why he was a fixture for Australia A in 2022.
He started ahead of White, his passing accuracy on 49 passes was nearly 100 per cent during his 51 minutes and he made two of the clutch plays of the first half when the game was at its most intense.
Jones has always said that performing in the biggest, most intense club games carries double points in the selection room. This was one of those games.
Tick and tick for Lonergan.
When Wright’s sharp footwork punctured some ordinary Waratahs defence, it was the alert Lonergan running the inside line to finish it for a try.
Late in the first half, Lonergan caught the Waratahs and just about everyone else napping with a quick-tap play. He stabbed a cross-field kick towards Andy Muirhead on the sideline where he didn’t even have his mouthguard in. The winger almost seemed to be chatting to the touch judge.
Regardless, Muirhead swooped and the Lonergan opportunism reaped a try.
Lonergan works the blindside well and takes a decisive first step or two when he runs from the ruck base. He has all the ingredients to go further.
White did his job as a replacement and Gordon was pretty smart himself.
Reds skipper McDermott will want to forget his Townsville opening to the season.
Elsewhere around the country, the spark of Western Force finisher Issak Fines-Leleiwasa at No 9 was a significant reason behind his team’s rally to beat the Melbourne Rebels from 14 points down.
Reds skipper McDermott will want to forget his Townsville opening to the season. As strongly as he performed in some aspects of the game, kicking the ball out on the full twice and a knock-on when a scrum play had been called were demerits.
He’s far better than that and he’s just the sort of natural running halfback that Jones likes because he creates disorganisation in the opposition defence around the ruck with his constant sniping.
There will always be the prospect of the experienced Quade Cooper, when fit, or Bernard Foley being parachuted in by the Wallabies in July-August.
Right now, Jones wants two or three locally-based No 10s in consistent form so he has options.
Of the six who played significant minutes at first receiver in the opening round, debutant Lynagh, 19, Carter Gordon, 22, redhead Tane Edmed, 22, and Noah Lolesio, 23, are all younger than England’s Marcus Smith.
Combined, they don’t have the experience of Smith at the pro level. That in a nutshell is one of the handbrakes on Australia’s young No 10s; they are still chasing the match minutes to groove their nous and control.
Lolesio has 17 Tests behind him and some matchwinning moments mixed in but as a full-package No 10, he has a fair way to go.
One of new coach Steve Larkham’s ploys was to hold back Lolesio and White to be a super-subs halves pairing for the final half-hour for the Brumbies.
Roping the rampaging Ardie Savea in the open field as your first tackle in Super Rugby is a fair start [for Tom Lynagh] to go with three pure kicks from the tee and a cross-kick to set up the Reds only try.
Just seven minutes after running on, Lolesio was throwing a slick pass in a set play move which saw the quicksilver Toole dash over.
Lolesio does execute his role well in such orchestrated situations but control of play for his team is still a work-on.
A nod to Lynagh. Roping the rampaging Ardie Savea in the open field as your first tackle in Super Rugby is a fair start to go with three pure kicks from the tee and a cross-kick to set up the Reds only try.
Best of all, he looked composed. His dressing room thank you to father Michael for making the long haul from London to be at the game was a heartfelt moment.
Lynagh will start again on Sunday when Wallaby James O’Connor returns off the bench against the Force during the upcoming Super Round in Melbourne. A better pack performance in front of him will allow everyone to make a fuller judgement on Lynagh.
The two other flyhalves employed in Round One were journeymen Bryce Hegarty, 30, and Jack Debrezceni, 29.
Hegarty, at the Western Force after a quick stint at Leicester, played shrewdly and with good voice. The tall, big-kicking Debrezceni has always had potential. Kicking a slick 50-22 then sending another wayward kick sailing out on the full is pretty much a summary of his career.
The flyhalf race to the Wallabies’ No 10 jersey is wide open.
Meanwhile, the towering Nick Frost was named Rugby Australia’s Rookie of the Year for 2022 during the second week of the 2023 season.
The athletic, mobile lock could shape the Wallabies’ World Cup success or otherwise after breaking through for nine Tests in 2022 after not even being a Super Rugby starter to open last year.
It’s a big call but he could be every bit as influential as Maro Itoje was to Jones’ tenure with England.
The timing of such 2022 awards is curious to say the least but undeserved they are not.
It’s rather emblematic of how Australian rugby is hurrying to put all the pieces together in time to get things right in World Cup year.
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