Four of Australia’s new breed make their mark

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    Waratahs' Dave Dennis, center, tries to sidestep Lions' Wandile Mjekevu. AP Photo/Rob Griffith

    One of the more common criticisms of the state of Australian rugby is that there’s no depth, or even that there’s not enough quality to cater for four Super rugby teams, let alone one more with the arrival of the Melbourne Rebels in 2011.

    These criticisms place Australian rugby in the classic catch-22; without the four (and soon to be five) professional teams, places are very limited and the chance for young players to impress is often brief, and almost always cut-throat.

    Either way, the talent argument or how much of it there is or isn’t, is actually for another day. Looking around the Super 14 this year has seen some pretty handy young players making their mark already, and I’ve picked out four to focus on this week.

    NSW Waratahs flanker and lock Dave Dennis is one player who has already got plenty of wraps from the actual and armchair experts, which should come as no surprise after Robbie Deans took him to Europe at the end of 2009 after a starring season captaining Sydney University’s premiership side.

    The 24-year-old didn’t take long to establish his place for the Tahs this season, and his strong form on their South African tour was enough to consign long-standing lock Will Caldwell to the bench after the return of Dean Mumm from suspension.

    Moving back to blindside flanker has been a godsend for Dennis though, and his performance in Friday night’s rout of the Lions particularly, was pretty hard to ignore.

    In the first half on Friday night, Dennis’s large frame was a constant presence in the tackle and ruck areas, but it was in the second half as the game opened up where Dennis really came into his own.

    Suddenly he was making line breaks and offloads seemingly at will, and proved to be a headache for the already-aching Lions defence in centre field. If there were repeat phases to be had, Dennis was in them up to his ears, and he was a crucial link between forwards and backs in attack.

    I don’t want to go making rash statements (for a change), but I can see a lot of Wallaby captain Rocky Elsom in Dave Dennis currently. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see him in a Wallaby jumper before the year is done.

    ACT Brumbies playmaker Christian Lealiifano was tipped by plenty – me included – to be the main loser with the return to Canberra of prodigal son Matt Giteau.

    After young flyhalf Matt Toomua finished the 2009 season in strong form, and found himself as a late call-up on the Wallabies’ Spring Tour, the thought was that Lealiifano would spend most of 2010 on the bench, and that the Melbourne-raised midfielder would become an inevitable signing for the Rebels.

    He may well end up returning home in 2011 yet, but if he does it won’t be because he’s unwanted in Canberra.

    Lealiifano has instead benefitted massively from Giteau’s return, and has slotted into the inside centre position almost seamlessly. What’s more, because Giteau is under pressure to deliver a title and walk on water at the same time, Lealiifano has been able to ply his creative trade at No.12 with little or no pressure at all.

    More often than not, Lealiifano is calling the plays for his outside men, rather than Giteau, and it would appear that the Brumbies are pinning their attacking game around Lealiifano in that New Zealand-style second five-eighths position.

    Queensland Reds inside centre Anthony Faingaa was something of a surprise naming in the Reds’ No.12 at the start of this season, but since then, he’s repaid new Queensland coach Ewan McKenzie’s faith in spades.

    While the likes of Quade Cooper, Will Genia, and even rookie speedster Luke Morahan are getting the rave reviews in the Reds’ cracking season start, Faingaa has been a constant performer among these names, even if he hasn’t been as widely noticed.

    His defence has always been a strong point, and this has certainly continued to be the case in 2010, though admittedly, anyone defending in the line next to Quade Cooper is going to look fairly solid.

    But he’s also a straight, hard running centre, not unlike NSW’s Tom Carter, and Faingaa’s ability to hit holes really shone in the Reds’ 50-10 demolition of the Western Force in Brisbane on Sunday, where he scored his first and then second try for the Reds since moving north from Canberra at the end of 2008.

    While his talent was always evident, it seems he’s finally benefitting for the same thing every young player craves: opportunity. On current form, there should be plenty more of it coming his way.

    Western Force flanker Ben McCalman first caught my eye a few weeks back, when I forced myself to ignore a lifetime’s worth of backline instinct and watch forwards for a weekend (yes, it was painful, and no, I’m not quite back to normal).

    Having made his Super rugby debut from the bench in round 1, McCalman was elevated to the starting line-up following the long-term injuries to Wallaby backrowers Richard Brown and The Roar’s own David Pocock, and has just gone from strength to strength since, albeit in some fairly well-beaten Force teams this year.

    While there’s been seemingly weekly shuffling of the troops in the Force pack of late, McCalman has been a fixture in the No.6 jumper, and his work in combination with openside flanker Matt Hodgson has been a rare highlight so far in a season the Force desperately needs to get back on track.

    Like his Sydney Uni team-mate Dave Dennis, who then went to Europe last Spring, McCalman was brought into the Wallabies pre-tour training squad having grabbed the attention of Robbie Deans while playing strongly in last year’s Shute Shield finals.

    His ability to cover lock and backrow can only be a good thing for his future selection hopes, and it’s not difficult to picture him in Australian colours in the coming years.

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (86)

    • Roar Pro

      March 16th 2010 @ 3:23am
      Bruce Ross said | March 16th 2010 @ 3:23am | ! Report

      Brett, just a couple of points in relation to Dave Dennis who I thought had a sensational game against the Lions. I agree with you that he is very much a player of the future.

      You state that “Robbie Deans took him to Europe at the end of 2009 after a starring season captaining Sydney University’s premiership side.” It should be noted that Dave captained the side for the first half of the season before stepping aside when “the Skipper”, Tim Davidson, came back from England. Davidson, undoubtedly the most successful captain in Uni’s long history, then went on to notch up his fifth successive Premiership as captain.

      You also mention that Dennis’s “strong form on [the ‘Tahs] South African tour was enough to consign long-standing lock Will Caldwell to the bench.” In fairness to Will he is still regaining strength and condition after a very serious and debilitating illness that saw him drop 25kg of bodyweight. I think it is very much in his interests that he is not presently being called upon to play 80 minutes. By the end of the Super 14 he too is likely to be in strong contention for the national squad.

      • Columnist

        March 16th 2010 @ 5:52am
        Brett McKay said | March 16th 2010 @ 5:52am | ! Report

        G’day Bruce, thanks for your comments..

        You’re quite right about Will Caldwell of course, on all counts actually, and his illness has been well covered prior to, and since the commencement of the season. The omisson of these facts here was somewhat deliberate however, more a case of context and wanting to keep the column to a reasonable length.

        Overlooking the triumphant return of Tim Davidson though, who I’m happy to hear is being spoken of as a likely Melbourne Rebels signing, well, that’s again part contextual, part mea culpa. Thankfully, it doesn’t change the main points or the premise of today’s column…

        And onto today’s topic, the injuries to Richard Brown and David Pocock will make the early Wallaby squad selections interesting. I can certainly see Dennis featuring prior to and during the Tri Nations, even if as a bench option covering lock and blindside in that similar role Dean Mumm has played in recent years. He’s been super impressive since the Tahs returned to Sydney especially.

        McCalman might feature in training squads this year again too, and he’s also played a bit of No.8 from memory, but he might be a few years off yet. Although, Aussie Rob does like his forwards versatile..

    • March 16th 2010 @ 5:38am
      Hobart Friz said | March 16th 2010 @ 5:38am | ! Report

      Good post, Brett. There are quite a few of us on The Roar who aren’t on the local scene and know little about the up and comers. Maybe one of your colleagues can do the same for NZ rugby. Be nice to see some of the players you mention get a run for the Wallabies against England in June.

      • Columnist

        March 16th 2010 @ 7:33am
        Brett McKay said | March 16th 2010 @ 7:33am | ! Report

        Hobart, it would be great to find some time to watch some NZ games!! Now that the Tahs and Brumbies have come back from South Africa though, the NZ teams will be in view a bit more, so we’ll see what we can come up with.

        I haven’t seen Aaron Cruden play yet, but certainly want to, but I have seen enough of Zac Guildford already to know he is going to be a very dangerous player to contain in the coming years. He does a lot of work in traffic for a smaller-built winger…

      • March 16th 2010 @ 12:14pm
        ThelmaWrites said | March 16th 2010 @ 12:14pm | ! Report

        Hear, Hear, Hobart.

        Brett, some levity from me: This week-end: I finally noticed that there were Fainga’a twins on the same Red side. (We’ve finally succumbed to rugby temptation. My daughter (the All Blacks supporter, she doesn’t want to be known as “the All Blacks convert” 🙂 insisted on getting me Foxtel. Now It takes will power to attend to other compelling tasks!) I hope the Hooker Fainga’a doesn’t shed his locks, otherwise I won’t be able tell him apart from the Center Fainga’a. Twins in sports fascinate me. The Waugh twins are fraternal twins, but it was their twin-ness that got me to watching cricket. I walked past the TV and was told that Steve was on 99 and his twin brother, Mark (6 seconds younger), was runnining for Craig McDermott. Mark got run-out and left Steve stranded on 99. There will be words exchanged in the Waugh household, the commentator said.

        Then there are the Morris brothers. Thank God they have numbers on jerseys.

        • Columnist

          March 16th 2010 @ 12:25pm
          Brett McKay said | March 16th 2010 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

          Thelma, of all the various reasons I’ve heard people give for watching rugby, or sport in general, “Twins in sports fascinate me” is a new one!!

          Both Faingaas are going well for Qld this year though, so you’d do a lot worse on Foxtel than watching more of them…

          (and at least the Morris boys play for different clubs too. Wait ’til they start playing Origin!!)

          • March 16th 2010 @ 1:24pm
            ThelmaWrites said | March 16th 2010 @ 1:24pm | ! Report

            Come to think of it, I think there were the Flowers twins for Zimbabwe cricket in the 90’s. Not sure.

            • March 16th 2010 @ 2:40pm
              Brett McKay said | March 16th 2010 @ 2:40pm | ! Report

              Thelma, Andy Flower is actually 2 or 3 years older than brother Grant, so long birth delivery aside, I’m pretty sure they’re not twins….

              • March 16th 2010 @ 8:14pm
                ThelmaWrites said | March 16th 2010 @ 8:14pm | ! Report

                Didn’t anyone pick up the error in my post above? Mark Waugh couldn’t have been 6 SECONDS younger than Steve. More like 6 MINUTES!!! Perhaps the Roar posters were too polite to call my attention to the mistake???

              • March 17th 2010 @ 7:05am
                Brett McKay said | March 17th 2010 @ 7:05am | ! Report

                Thelma, my work was done with the Flower “twins”….

              • March 17th 2010 @ 9:09pm
                ThelmaWrites said | March 17th 2010 @ 9:09pm | ! Report

                Thanks, Brett, for all the clarifications, e.g. the Flower “twins”. I’m just an enthusiastic pedant with a faulty memory and extreme lapses of concentration.

    • Roar Pro

      March 16th 2010 @ 6:35am
      Grimmace said | March 16th 2010 @ 6:35am | ! Report

      Good stuff Brett, focus on the piggies again this week and the quality of your artices will know no bounds. Lets hope the ARU leaved RL players alone and focus their money on unearthing more Dave Dennis’ and co. I think the amount of young players making their mark this year has been a highlight thus far.

      • Columnist

        March 16th 2010 @ 7:41am
        Brett McKay said | March 16th 2010 @ 7:41am | ! Report

        Ha Grimace! I’m quite concerned for my own welfare actually, all of a sudden I’m noticing the hit in the scrum, whereas previously I would have been looking to see how the centres were facing up. I’m noticing things like George Smith staying bound to a wheeling scrum by little more than DNA and The Force (the actual Force, not the Western kind), and applauding his cunning, rather than wondering how he gets away with it.

        Heck, the other night out at the rugby, I noticed John Smit and Bismarck du Plessis buckle on engagement right in front of us in about the 15th minute, and said to my wife “the Brumbies are going to win the scrums in a canter tonight…”

        I’ve been scrubbing myself, scrubbing bloody hard, but I can’t get rid of it, and I just feel so dirty…….

        • March 16th 2010 @ 8:52am
          Working Class Rugger said | March 16th 2010 @ 8:52am | ! Report


          ” I’ve been scrubbing myself, scrubbing bloody hard, but I can’t get rid of it, and I just feel so dirty…….”

          Why? You obviously have matured as a Rugby fan to the point that you can finally appreciate the finer arts of the game. Don’t be ashamed. Embrace your inner Piggy.

        • Columnist

          March 16th 2010 @ 9:31am
          Brett McKay said | March 16th 2010 @ 9:31am | ! Report

          WCR, I grew up playing cricket and football – league, predominantly – and from a young age, I was well-versed on infinite psycholgical mega-war that has waged eternally between batsmen and bowlers, backs and forwards.

          Like bowlers, I just saw forwards as a necessary evil, a mere detail of the game that had to be tolerated to achieve the glory that innevitably came the way of we batsmen and backs.

          So I’m sorry mate, there will be no embracing, and there is certainly no inner piggy (if we ever meet, you’ll see why!) I don’t make the rules WCR, it’s just how it is 😉

          • March 16th 2010 @ 9:49am
            Working Class Rugger said | March 16th 2010 @ 9:49am | ! Report

            Oh well, there for a fleeting moment appeared to be some hope for you. It’s a pity. But if you’re happy to live blissfully ignorant amongst the mirror holding pretty boy brigade then so be it. 😀

          • Columnist

            March 16th 2010 @ 9:59am
            Brett McKay said | March 16th 2010 @ 9:59am | ! Report

            and so the battle wages on WCR….

          • March 16th 2010 @ 12:07pm
            Ballywhore said | March 16th 2010 @ 12:07pm | ! Report

            Funny line about the rugby league Brett.

            Another two coder.

            The Peter Fitzsimons thing has been done to death.

            Time for a new song to sing, rah rah.

    • March 16th 2010 @ 8:02am
      Gary Russell-Sharam said | March 16th 2010 @ 8:02am | ! Report

      Good article Brett. The main message that I recieved from your article was that there is a plether of young rugby players knocking on the door to gain selection in the Super teams. They just need to have the opportunity to show their wares. The inception of the new Rebels team will be an avenue to facilitate this. I have always maintained that there is plenty of talent in Australian rugby they just needed to have the opportunity. In the past there hasn’t been the teams to accomodate them, now from 2011 there will be. All the worry worts that have been saying that the player base is thin on the ground haven’t been able to see the true picture. The amount of talent in the GPS system in Qld alone is enough to supply half of the Super teams that exist in Australia already and in the future there will be talent being nurtured in other non-traditional states like Vic and WA. As the example of the Brumbies and Canberra, if you install a team in the area you then grow rugby around the team. Who would have thought 20 odd years ago that the Canberra region would have a strong comp going.

      • Columnist

        March 16th 2010 @ 11:48am
        Brett McKay said | March 16th 2010 @ 11:48am | ! Report

        cheers Gary, glad you’ve enjoyed it. ‘Opportunity’ is very much the central theme here, and like the ARC showed us back in 2007, if it’s there, there’s plenty of young bucks willing to grasp it, run with it, tuck it up the proverbial jumper, etc..

        It’s funny you mention what the Brumbies have done for rugby in the ACT, and there would be plenty of Roarers who will know exactly who I’m thinking of when I say your thoughts here are very much contrary to one which is regularly expressed in these forums.

        And it’s true, the Brumbies have been good for rugby down this way. They provide a well-defined path for young kids in the region to follow, from the very entry level all the way to the Wallabies. What’s more, local coaches and officals benefit from newer methods and knowledge sharing. It all flows on. Last year was the first time the Wallabies played in Canberra in ten years, and they’ll be back again this year. None of any of that would have happened without the Brumbies…

    • March 16th 2010 @ 8:16am
      reds fan said | March 16th 2010 @ 8:16am | ! Report

      Brett, please rectract your libelous comments regarding A. Faingaa. He in no way resembles Tom Carter.

      • Roar Pro

        March 16th 2010 @ 9:22am
        Vented Relief said | March 16th 2010 @ 9:22am | ! Report

        Agreed. He’s more in the mould of Wynand Olivier – great in defence, speed to burn (unlike carter) and knows how to run lines (unlike carter).

    • Roar Guru

      March 16th 2010 @ 8:16am
      LeftArmSpinner said | March 16th 2010 @ 8:16am | ! Report

      Interesting choice of youngsters. I’m with you all the way. Not sure that Faingaa is in the same class as the others but, he is certainly playing some good rugby. He is showing Carter to be out of position at the tahs. Carter is simply not a 13, but that discussion is for another day. Some of the others that come to mind are Mowen, Higginbotham, Kingi, Daley and Weekes for starters.

      And then there is the sorry Beale, once clearly ahead of Cooper and not clearly not even in the frame for a tahs start. He has been done no favours by the tahs since he arrived and has made a few mistakes himself.

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