Where is Australian rugby’s Mike Delany?
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Highlander's Mike Delany in the tackle of Blue's Gareth Anscombe. AAP Image/SNPA, Dianne Manson
Very early on in this Super Rugby round, something happened that nagged me for the rest of the weekend.
In the 12th minute of the Highlanders-Blues game under the laserlite roof in Dunedin on Friday night, prodigal Highlanders son Mike Delany threw a superb no-look inside pass from a scrum win for Hosea Gear, who angled away from the posts to find Shaun Treeby in support. Treeby crashed over in the corner to score the Highlanders’ first try of the night.
As far as set-piece plays go, it was hardly scientifically difficult, once again proving there’s often little match for simple plays executed with precision at pace.
Delany was back in the Highlanders’ no.10 jersey having answered an SOS from coach Jamie Joseph, following a Reds-like injury curse to flyhalves Colin Slade and Lima Sopoaga.
The 29-year-old slotted in seamlessly, kicking seven from nine off the tee, and putting on something of a playmaking master-class for most of the game, where the Highlanders ultimately got up 30-27.
There’s a back-story to Delany landing back in Dunedin, and it’s one that I had to look into further. While I could recall Delany playing Super Rugby, and I knew he had played for the All Blacks at some point, I couldn’t actually remember too much about him or even how recently he played.
It turns out Delany played nine games for the Highlanders in 2008, before playing another twenty-odd games for the Chiefs from 2009. After playing one test for the All Blacks against Italy at the end of 2010, Delany headed to Japan after last year’s Super Rugby season, and has been plying his trade over there for the Panasonic Wild Knights.
Though it had been rumoured in New Zealand for several weeks that Delany was coming back to fill the void created by the season-ending injuries to Slade and Sopoaga, even early last week Joseph was still only talking even money odds of the deal being completed.
The paperwork only came through last Tuesday, leaving Delany just three days to get accustomed with his new-but-old temporary surrounding. He’ll head straight back to Japan at the completion of the Highlanders’ season.
That pass in the 12th minute suggested that Delany had come through his Jamie Joseph Highlanders crash-course pretty well, and indeed the coach was raving about Delany’s preparation and performance post-match.
“He hasn’t played with us and had to take in a lot of information, game-plans, new guys and then gel into the position. I thought he might struggle with all that but he was outstanding,” Joseph told the New Zealand Fairfax press.
And good luck to him. If the Highlanders do play finals rugby this year, there’s little doubt the Delany repatriation – albeit only short-term – will have worked a treat.
Once all the feel-good died down after the Highlanders-Blues game, young Reds flyhalf Sam Lane’s awkwardly flexing knee started the nagging feeling I haven’t been able to shake since.
It seems every year the New Zealand teams have been able to call on quality playmakers of seasons past when the inevitable injury tolls strike. It feels like Tony Brown comes back every other year.
But with the Reds no.10 jersey now quite clearly hexed, and Quade Cooper’s return date still no clearer, who could the Reds have possibly called on if Mike Harris and Ben Lucas had not been fit to return as they did this weekend?
Where – or who, even – is Australia’s Mike Delany?
It’s a sobering thought. Already this year, the Brumbies have lost Matt Toomua for the season, the Reds had already lost Jono Lance and now Sam Lane, and the Force have been playing without a first-choice flyhalf since late in the pre-season.
Yet, aside from maybe Matt Giteau, I can’t think of any quality no.10s that Australian sides could look to bring back to ease a playmaking crisis, and that’s even assuming that the ARU would allow such a move.
Five or six years ago you could quite easily have pointed to several solid playmakers who’d only just headed overseas, guys like Chris Malone, Brock James, and even Dan Parks. But they might be the last of the decent quality no.10s who might’ve been enticed home. Who knows what’s happened to Lachie Mackay since he left the Force.
It seems that Australian players don’t head overseas until later in their careers, which means the gulf between first-choice and apprentice players in a Super Rugby squad is getting bigger by the year.
But without a proper second tier, we’re asking inexperienced young players to just click instantly in Super Rugby, where the intensity is as proportionally high as the margin for error is low. Sam Lane should never have had to find his feet in the deep end of Super Rugby.
Without Mike Delanys or Tony Browns to call on, we’re asking way too much of our rookies at this level. And if we’re no closer to a second tier, then we have to at least start looking at playing the ‘A’ teams as curtain-raisers before local Super Rugby derbies.
Let the Academy kids, the rookies, and the EPS’ers play at a level above club rugby, but without the cut and thrust of the SANZAR tournament.
Whatever the answer, something has to be done now.
We can’t just keep burning young players like we currently are.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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