The Wallabies at last have options at No. 10 but the team is crying out for one or more of them to stamp their authority on Super Rugby AU in the same way that Richie Mo’unga made an irresistible All Blacks case across the Tasman with the Crusaders.
The opportunity is there for any of Australia’s quartet of fly-half options to cement themselves in the Wallabies No. 10 jersey, firstly for the visit of France, and then for the run to the Rugby World Cup when Les Bleus will be as tough to beat as anyone playing on their home patch.
The Wallabies’ fly-half stocks are not of the quality of All Blacks, nor is there yet a conundrum even close to that which resembled the All Blacks’ ongoing selection headache, albeit one that Ian Foster looks to have settled on in the Mo’unga-Beauden Barrett dual playmaker setup.
But while there was no-one around to really push Bernard Foley – before Christian Leali’ifano’s return – nor Quade Cooper when the enigmatic playmaker was briefly at his peak in the Test arena, Australia’s current four-pronged contingent are there to keep each other honest week to week and put forward a compelling case to Dave Rennie.
James O’Connor, buoyed by the Reds captaincy announcement, certainly starts in the box seat and will have the benefit of playing behind what is a dominant pack, just as the Brumbies’ Noah Lolesio should as well.
The Wallabies’ best performance of 2020 came in Wellington with O’Connor at No. 10, and Matt To’omua playing a secondary distribution role from inside centre. Australia defeated the All Blacks in Bledisloe IV in Brisbane with Reece Hodge doing a fine job, but there were also a number or variables in that final trans-Tasman encounter.
We’ll have to wait another week to see if Hodge reprises that role for the Rebels following a gentle nudge from Rennie, or whether Dave Wessels sees the man with the biggest boot in Australian rugby best suited elsewhere in the Melbourne backline.
That brings us to the youngsters.
Lolesio and the Waratahs’ Will Harrison are the long-term future for the Wallabies, two players whom, with the right management and a bit of luck, could be playing alongside each other at a home World Cup in 2027.
But either could also emerge as the player to take the Wallabies reins for the 2023 Word Cup, too.
Lolesio made a huge statement early in 2020 when the Brumbies had moved to 4-2 in Super Rugby before its suspension, the 21-year-old unfortunately then was injured in only the second round of Super Rugby AU.
But he returned for the final and produced a man-of-the-match performance to guide the Brumbies to a 28-23 victory over Reds. Sure, Lolesio got a rude shock in the step up to Test rugby in Bledisloe III at ANZ Stadium, but he then came off the bench a week later to savour the closing moments of the unlikely turnaround in Brisbane.
— ESPN Scrum (@espnscrum) February 18, 2021
Harrison, meanwhile, wasn’t given the chance to test himself against either the All Blacks or Pumas last year. Having played behind a Waratahs pack that was well beaten in Super Rugby, the 21-year-old pivot took a little longer to settle, but then showed glimpses of his talent to get better and eventually finish as one of NSW’s few genuine success stories of 2020.
Harrison’s biggest strength is his goal-kicking, with the Randwick product kicking at the astonishingly high success rate of 93 percent over eight games in Super Rugby AU. To put that in perspective, Reece Hodge kicked at just shy of 74 percent across only four matches in the Rugby Championship. The pressures are greater at Test level, no doubt; but kicking consistently at Super Rugby level is surely a good starting point.
Whether Harrison is able to shine in what looks to be a Waratahs team that will again do it tough remains the big question, but should he continue to kick north of 90 percent his case for a Test start later this year will be even harder to deny.
“After Bernard Foley, who did great things for this club, it’s a bit daunting to fill that position,” Waratahs captain Gordon said of Harrison on Friday.
“But it’s naturally a progression; he wasn’t tentative, but maybe a bit shy to start but now he’s really feeling confident, calling plays, leading our team meetings.
“He’s such an energetic guy but he’s really tough as well, puts his body on the line and his core skills have gone to another level after Wallaby camp.
“I love playing with him, he’s a tough bugger.”
A “tough bugger” is not perhaps the description you would use for James O’Connor, given some of the bumps along his rugby journey. But some 13 years on from his Super Rugby debut, O’Connor begins the season with the opportunity to really create lasting positive memories of his Australian provincial career.
Liam Wright’s unlucky injury has opened the door for O’Connor to not just be the Reds commander in chief, but also run the show completely with the ‘C’ proudly sitting beside his name in the matchday program.
If Taniela Tupou and Harry Wilson are able to provide the same front-foot ball they did in 2020, then O’Connor will have a wonderful platform to work off in steering the Reds around. And he surely could not be any more motivated to perform following his promotion to the Queensland captaincy.
“For sure, this is my home, I grew up playing here. It is the dream,” O’Connor said when asked whether the Reds captaincy was among his greatest honours. “When Brad [Thorn] told me the other day, I had quite an emotional moment where I reflected on my whole journey; being away, coming back and just everything that has been a part of it. It’s just really humbling.”
Over the next few months Rennie will get to gauge performances and decide on the man who deserves first crack as the Wallabies No. 10; the trans-Tasman Super Rugby series [hopefully] will offer an even greater yardstick of a player who can perform when the pressure really comes on.
The door is open for any of O’Connor, Lolesio, Harrison and, potentially, Hodge to stake their claim.
It’d be nice for one man, at the very least, to stand up and demand selection from the outset and begin to declutter the Wallabies playmaking picture in the run to France 2023.