Ben Tapuai’s sparkling performance at inside centre for the Wallabies in their win over England suggests he could become much more than just a stop gap in the position.
Tapuai was shifted in a spot from outside centre after the more direct-running Pat McCabe was diagnosed with a neck fracture which will keep him out of the game for at least three months.
With versatile veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper restored to outside centre, it was Australia’s eighth centre combination used in 13 Tests this year but they looked every bit a seasoned pairing.
Playing just his fifth Test, 23-year-old Queenslander Tapuai proved a revelation with his quick feet, neat passing game and clever kicks adding a creative and dangerous edge to the Wallabies’ attack as he clicked with five-eighth Kurtley Beale and Ashley-Cooper in the 20-14 success at Twickenham.
Coach Robbie Deans was clearly impressed with what he saw and looks set to stick with Tapuai in the role as the Wallabies look ahead to their clash with Italy in Florence on Saturday.
“Benny clearly enjoyed being a little bit closer to the action getting his hands on the ball,” Deans said.
“He squares up the attack well and provides voice for Kurtley (Beale) as well.”
Beale thrived with Tapuai on his hip while Ashley-Cooper clearly enjoyed playing outside the talented pair, with Australia’s midfield looking reborn.
Their success was no great surprise to Tapuai, who grew up playing No.12 as a schoolboy and has plenty of experience there for Queensland too.
“Adam and I were always confident we could get the job done,” Tapuai said.
“He’s such a great communicator. I think what helped me was having Kurtley and Adam around me. The more they talked to me, the easier it made my job.”
While Australia scored only one try against England, they looked more threatening with England several times giving up penalties when looking likely to have their line crossed.
“Obviously, we would have rather have scored tries,” Deans said.
“But when your opponent concedes penalties, the momentum is gone. Sometimes you’ve just got to bank it, and come back again.”
With McCabe out of the tour, Tapuai is keen to make the most of his opportunities against Italy and Wales.
“It’s sad for Pat McCabe and I can’t replace what he does but now I’ve got the chance and I don’t want to let go,” Tapuai said.