Three promising weekend events for the good of Australian rugby

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    Over the weekend, three very different and unrelated things happened in three different locations that could all have a huge impact on the Australian rugby landscape in their own right. And all three are really exciting for very different reasons.

    The first was the performance of Reece Hodge as Wallabies flyhalf. Hodge far from starred in his first outing in the Australian no.10 jersey, but what he did do was prove that not only will he be a very handy stand-in over time, but that once again, Michael Cheika knew what he was doing all along.

    Perhaps only those close to Hodge, probably his Wallabies teammates, and obviously Cheika didn’t see any great risk in Hodge stepping in for the poorly Bernard Foley against Japan on Saturday. The rest of us were probably happy enough for the experiment to take place in Yokohama two years out, rather than during the 2019 Rugby World Cup itself.

    But, it turns out that playing flyhalf is kind of like riding a bike, and I have to say, I loved Hodge’s comment going into the game, that he always thought he was a flyhalf playing in other positions anyway.

    The Wallabies played a smart, but simple game plan to make life easier for Hodge, and it was noticeable how often Kurtley Beale popped up at first receiver to take the pressure off. Hodge played a simple distribution game that was built around letting Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani run wild and free in midfield, something they both did to great effect.

    It’s easy to criticise Nick Phipps it seems, but he gets due credit here too, by looking to play wider from the ruck, to ensure Hodge wasn’t having to throw passes beyond his current skill base, and to also provide that extra bit of width for the midfield game.

    It wasn’t perfect, and there were a lot of errors, but there was enough promise on display to move it into the ‘worth persevering’ column, rather than being discarded completely. I do wonder if Hodge at 10 might be best served by more creativity at 12, rather than the dual-unsubtlety of Kerevi and Kuridrani, but that’s something that can be refined over time. What it does mean is that Wallabies fans need not be so nervous about Foley walking anywhere near buses for the time being.

    And in kicking nine conversions from nine attempts, Hodge has given Cheika a very nice headache for the rest of the Spring Tour. Is there merit to letting Foley just concentrate on playing flyhalf, and leaving the goal-kicking duties – at least – with Hodge? I think there is.

    Reece Hodge

    (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

    It’s always been unfair to judge Hodge’s kicking ability on his entirely misleading international record, where prior to this game against Japan, he rarely got to kick from anywhere but the painted mid-field ground signage. But Hodge kicked 36/52 at 69 per cent in Super Rugby for the Melbourne Rebels this season, including 10/14 conversions.

    He essentially assumed the kicking full-time from around Round 8 and from then on landed 27/38, including 7/10 conversions.

    Clearly, there’s still work to do, and equally, his record will be affected by still taking the long-range shots that he does. But if he can kick at the same success rate as Foley inside Foley’s range and then kick one from every three from beyond forty metres out, then the Wallabies are already in front.

    In Toowoomba on Sunday afternoon, Taniela Tupou’s schoolboy YouTube video highlights played out for real, with what might well have been the perfect display of set piece domination and open field carnage for Queensland Country, in the second NRC semi-final against the well-beaten Fijian Drua.

    The Fox Sports stats guys had him down for 15 runs and twelve tackles busts after an hour, and his match numbers were phenomenal in the end: 18 runs for 125 metres, 15 tackle busts, four line-breaks, two offloads, a try assist and two tries himself. If you didn’t have him in your fantasy team, you will do this weekend

    Tupou becomes eligible for the Wallabies in time for the season-ending Scotland Test on November 25, and while his ball-carrying is effective and great for the highlights-makers, his scrummaging has been excellent during the NRC and will be of greater importance in the international game.

    There’s a wide expectation that he’ll join the Wallabies in the UK after the NRC Final this Saturday, and on last Sunday’s display, why wouldn’t you.

    Taniela Tupuo breaking a tackle against the Rebels

    (Credit: Sportography/QRU)

    Finally, Sunday was described as a “transformative day” for the game in this neck of the woods, with agreement reached between and announced by Andrew Forrest’s Indo-Pacific Rugby Championship and Rugby Australia for a March 2019 kick-off.

    What I’d presume will be a ‘Western Force’ team and five others to be named from the Indo-Pacific region will play a full home-and-away series plus finals. The five other teams will be announced for World Rugby to sanction at a board meeting on November 14, The West Australian reported on Sunday.

    That World Rugby Sanction would seem fairly likely, too, with CEO Brett Gosper quoted in the IPRC media release:

    “World Rugby is supportive of the IPRC’s objective to further help grow the game of rugby throughout the Indo Pacific region. This massive region of the world is a key priority of World Rugby’s mission to grow the game globally,” Gosper said.

    IPRC appear to be maintaining that ‘Force’ players will remain eligible for the Wallabies despite not playing Super Rugby, on the basis that they are playing in an Australian-based side per Rugby Australia’s policy.

    But, the competition’s integrity and viability will be won and lost by RA allowing repatriated Australian players to remain Wallabies-eligible by playing for one of the five other IPRC-based sides as well.

    The strength of the five other IPRC sides is arguably more important than the strength of the Perth-based side; without it, few will want to watch one-sided thumpings, and even fewer will want to broadcast or sponsor it.

    The in-principle agreement between IPRC and RA – and with it, the likely World Rugby endorsement – is an important first step, which while providing a curious alternative to Super Rugby (and maybe even a blueprint for future versions thereof), also ensures the NRC won’t be impacted, nor its best players lured to a rival competition.

    The challenge now will be the sign-off on Australian players filling the five other teams, and then the really hard job of convincing overseas-based players to return home before the 2018-19 northern season begins.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.