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Opinion

Huge off-season for Australian No.10s – unless you’re in NSW

Mack Mason of the Waratahs kicks off in the second half of the Round 7 Super Rugby match between the New South Wales Waratahs and the Sunwolves at McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle, Friday, March 29, 2019. (AAP Image/Paul Barkley)
Expert
2nd December, 2019
114
5897 Reads

It’s been a recurring theme at the back end of this season.

As the Wallabies’ Rugby World Cup came to an end, it signalled the departure of so many senior players. All of them deservedly heading off in different directions to embark on the next (and lucrative) chapter of their careers.

At the same time, as the best of the next wave of Australian talent was gearing up for the NRC finals, the theme was practically underlining itself.

There really hasn’t been a better time to be a young Aussie flyhalf.

With Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley, and Christian Lealiifano all moving to Japan, the Australian Super Rugby sides have suddenly lost 401 Super Rugby games and more than 160 Tests’ worth of experience.

Only the Melbourne Rebels – in the form of Matt Toomua – have a ready-made replacement for the experience they’ve just lost, but even he’s no certainty to take the No.10 jersey in Round 1 next season.

He’d like to, for what it’s worth.

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Toomua spent the majority of his time at flyhalf in his nine seasons at the Brumbies, yet has only started five of his 52 Tests at first receiver. He has started 24 Tests at inside centre, however, and spent much of his time with Leicester there as well, often playing outside England flyhalf George Ford.

But he’s laid down the early challenge to himself – and Rebels coach Dave Wessels, I suppose – declaring he wants to slot back into the role he feels most comfortable with.

“I have always viewed myself as a ten who has played 12,” he said last week, at the announcement Melbourne would host a Bledisloe Cup-Laurie O’Reilly Memorial Trophy double-header next season at the Dockland Stadium.

“The goes I have had at ten, I probably needed some time in the saddle to develop it. Because I’d got used to playing 12 and the little details that go with it.

“But moving to ten… it’s a different position and in all honesty, it probably requires you to be in that position all year long at club rugby.

“I think at times I struggled to start at ten because I hadn’t had that time in the saddle. It has always been my favourite position and definitely with the end of World Cup marking the start of a new cycle, it’s something I want to stick at now and make it my spot.”

This is the Matt Toomua I know; confident enough to say what he means, and determined enough to make it happen. And I wish him well. A strong Super Rugby season will make a pretty compelling case for a first and probably lengthy shot at the Wallabies No.10 jersey come the Ireland series next year.

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Matt Toomua of the Wallabies

Matt Toomua of the Wallabies (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

But also down in Melbourne is Andrew Deegan, the former Randwick flyhalf who has landed at the Rebels via NSW Country, Irish Pro14 side Connacht and, most recently, the Western Force.

Still only 24, Deegan would be firmly on Wessels’ radar for Round 1, and almost certainly wouldn’t have made the move back east to be a bit-part player.

There are of course a number of floating balls here, Toomua’s versatility and where Reece Hodge slots in among them, but it wouldn’t at all surprise to see Toomua stationed one spot out when the Rebels face the mighty Moondogs in Tokyo on February 1.

In Canberra, it will absolutely be a rookie flyhalf who leads the Brumbies around on January 31 against Queensland, but which particular rookie flyhalf is still a long way from being decided.

Much of the expectation suggests that it will be Australian Under-20s midfielder Noah Lolesio and wearing 10 for seven of the Canberra Vikings’ nine NRC games this year only underlines that belief. But Bayley Kuenzle impressed plenty whenever he got an opportunity for the Vikings, and certainly can’t be ruled out.

They’re very different flyhalves, too. Lolesio is shorter and relies more on his playmaking skills to create opportunities. Kuenzle is a taller, broader player who will take on the line but has some seriously good hands to boot.

The one who really impressed in the first few weeks of pre-season is Brisbane schoolboy prodigy Reesjan Pasitoa, who the Brumbies signed while he was still in Year 11.

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A similar sort of physical player to Kuenzle, WA-born Pasitoa has been a huge part of Nudgee College’s success in recent years. Talking to a few senior Brumbies last week, a familiar theme emerged: this kid has some serious skill.

On the other side of that Round 1 battle, while I was starting to assume Queensland had already rearranged the furniture to give young Isaac Lucas a crack, it’s also emerged that James O’Connor is in the frame too.

Isaac Lucas of the Reds

Isaac Lucas of the Reds is seen in action during the Round 13 Super Rugby match between the Melbourne Rebels and the Queensland Reds at AAMI Park in Melbourne, Friday, May 10, 2019. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

The Reds’ planning was clear through the NRC. Hamish Stewart played inside centre for Queensland Country, and Bryce Hegarty slotted back in at fullback when he returned for Brisbane City, all the while Lucas was being allowed to find his way in a condensed apprenticeship in the City No.10 jersey.

We’ll find out what Brad Thorn really thinks soon enough.

And that leaves New South Wales.

It was nice to see the Waratahs tweet a picture of under-utilised Foley understudy Mack Mason last week, under the caption, “Return of the Mack”.

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Pictured in what appeared to be a fitness session and captured in what was either light rain or a grainy camera lens, the wording was interesting given how chronically under-developed Mason has remained in his three seasons since moving south.

And after he didn’t have a great NRC with NSW Country, my own fear was that the super-talented Will Harrison – who got my three votes in the NRC Rising Star tallying – might have gone past Mason and be in the box seat. That may still be the case and it would only reinforce what feels like three seasons of missed opportunities for Mason.

But then incoming coach Rob Penney dropped a bit of a bombshell in his first media session last week, declaring that he would be relying heavily on Michael Hooper and Kurtley Beale to guide what will be one of the least-experienced Waratahs sides in living memory.

“We have Will and Mack there who are up-and-coming and we have ‘KB’ that can fill a hole there,” Penney said of the obvious No.10-wearing elephant in the room.

“So we are pretty relaxed about that situation at the moment. We want to build from within, as we talked about a few months ago, and we want to give those boys our full backing.”

When that backing actually kicks in will be the big question, and Penney’s quote has been reported and widely interpreted as a move to the front line of attack for Beale.

Now, of course, Penney didn’t actually say it in those exact words, but it’s clearly front of mind if he’s already speaking of Beale “filling a hole”. Is that a later-in-the-season hole or a Round 1 hole?

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We can only guess between now and the trial games.

Mason’s apprenticeship is only incomplete because the Waratahs didn’t allow him to get close to completing it, while Harrison’s star can’t rise any quicker than it has in the last 12 months.

But surely both of them will be a better and longer-term solution at flyhalf for the Waratahs than Beale?

So why speak of Beale-shaped pegs for holes that don’t yet exist? Why not let a young side develop with one of its own steering the ship, building trust and familiarity and combination along the way?