Last week’s column outlining just how big an off-season the leading Australian No.10 candidates around the country face drew a really interesting discussion, and naturally, it got me thinking ahead to next year, and to a few players who for varying reasons find themselves under the pump.
This list, of course, is far from exhaustive, and wouldn’t even be the limit of every player in the crosshairs at the four Super Rugby outfits around the country.
But it certainly highlights a few different guys in a few different positions, and the sort of battles they’ll face within their own squad and beyond as they strive for national selection.
Queensland Reds – Brandon Paenga-Amosa
The Reds hooker’s four Tests for the Wallabies were only last season, but it seems like so much longer than that.
Tolu Latu’s defection to France to link up with Stade Français, along with a whole new thinking around how the Wallabies will play this season means that Paenga-Amosa, like every hooker in the Super Rugby squads, can absolutely put themselves in the international frame with a strong showing in 2020.
But ‘BPA’s biggest battle won’t necessarily be to win a Wallabies berth but to get the first shot at the Queensland No.2 jersey in Round 1 next season.
Paenga-Amosa and Alex Mafi very much shared the hooking duties for the Reds in 2019, both playing the 16 regular-season games, but with Mafi starting 11 of them and Paenga-Amosa five. Paenga-Amosa didn’t exactly do much wrong, but such was Mafi’s form that he was in some circles being described as a potential Rugby World Cup bolter.
So while the two Reds rakes are very much battling for the same jersey, it was interesting to read Paenga-Amosa last week speaking not of rivalry, but of collaboration and mutual motivation.
“Me and Alex both bring the best out of each other,” Paenga-Amosa told Emma Greenwood for RUGBY.com.au last week.
“When he’s training hard, I’m training hard; when I’m training hard, he’s training hard.
“But I think the best thing about it is we’re learning so much from each other and we’re actually good mates as well. We hang out a bit, we chat a bit. When I stuff, up he tells me; when he stuffs up, I pull him up and say, ‘try this’.
“We’re in it to back each other. We’re always encouraging each other.”
Of course, if he can edge ahead of Mafi, the Wallabies race remains strong for Paenga-Amosa, with Folau Fainga’a the preferred option up until the Rugby World Cup where he was promptly forgotten about completely. The biggest beneficiary of that amnesia, Jordan Uelese, will be looking to get through a full season for the first time in yonks.
You would expect underrated Waratahs hooker Damien Fitzpatrick to feature in discussions, too.
New South Wales Waratahs – Jack Dempsey
Seen by many as one of the luckier members to make the trip to Japan in September, Dempsey then played just the two ‘lesser’ pool matches against Uruguay and Georgia and despite the ridiculous amount of change, never really seemed in the frame to break into the top Wallabies side during the tournament.
But come 2020, and even with the departures of Michael Wells and Will Miller from the Waratahs, Dempsey is going to be facing a hell of a battle with the likes of Jed Holloway fresh back from a spell in Ireland and the super-promising Will Harris at No.8, and then the bulked-up Lachie Swinton and a refreshed Ned Hanigan at blindside.
Swinton was the player to gain most from Dempsey’s absence in 2019, playing 13 games and starting six of his last eight outings in the Waratahs No.6 jersey, and proved to be the closest thing to an abrasive ball-carrier the Tahs have had since Jacques Potgieter ran amok on the side of the scrum several seasons ago.
Truth be told, every one of those Waratahs named are in exactly the same battle as Dempsey. And then if they do manage to stand out in the sky-blue jersey, they’ll have upwards of a dozen backrow competitors from the other states eyeing off the same Wallabies jerseys.
Which all adds up to Dempsey needing to start 2020 exceptionally well. Because perhaps more than any year in recent seasons, a slow start could see a backrow tumble a long way down the pecking order.
Brumbies – Joe Powell
Joe Powell will be one of many Australian players looking forward to a new way of thinking within the Wallabies, and particularly around the selection table.
Powell hasn’t played a Test since the last match of the Ireland series in June 2018, and though he spent plenty of time in squads and training camps in 2019, never went close to adding to his four caps.
But with Will Genia retiring and Nick Phipps now overseas, Powell has a real chance to stand out from the pack of Australian scrum-halves in 2020.
He played all 18 games for the Brumbies last season, starting all but one and averaging upwards of 66 minutes when he did start. He provided a crucial connection between the Brumbies forwards and Christian Lealiifano at flyhalf, and was a huge factor in the Brumbies playing with so much front-foot ball on their way to a Super Rugby semi-last season.
But because the previous Wallabies coach didn’t think that highly of him, Powell still feels a long way from the being the first in line in 2020.
Jake Gordon at the Waratahs is very much in the same boat, and will carry all the same motivations into next season. And Tate McDermott’s star continues to rise north of the Tweed, where he too was considered a potential Wallabies Rugby World Cup bolter.
On the home front, Powell is very much first choice, though understudy Ryan Lonergan has the distinct advantage of established combination with No.10 front-runner Noah Lolesio, with the two of them playing a lot of rugby together at club and NRC level over the last 18 months.
And then there’s the Nic White cloud looming in the horizon. 2020 might be the year Powell does establish himself, only to find himself under the pump all over again in 2021.
Melbourne Rebels – Reece Hodge
I’ve very deliberately left the most curious until last because I’ve found myself in several discussions on social media and online already this off-season, all wondering the same thing: where exactly will Reece Hodge fit in next season?
There’s no denying Hodge’s utility value, but that perhaps is also a large part of the problem: he’s too good to leave out, but not quite good enough to nail down one spot, and thus, easy to shuffle in order to accommodate others.
Never mind the Wallabies, how this plays out for Hodge at the Rebels next year will be every bit as intriguing.
In the last two seasons, Hodge has played 30 Super Rugby games, which is what you’d expect. Exactly 15 games in both seasons. But those 30 games came across four different positions in 2018 and across five starting positions in 2019, plus games off the bench too.
And so the question still stands: where will Hodge fit in for the Rebels?
With Matt Toomua and Andrew Deegan, you wouldn’t expect flyhalf to be an option, leaving the centres and back three most likely.
But with Billy Meakes and Tom English, and even Semisi Tupou and Campbell Magnay as the centre options, and Dane Haylett-Petty, Marika Koroibete, Andrew Kellaway, and Jack Maddocks all covering the back three spots, the location of the Hodge-shaped hole remains as unclear as ever.
Hodge played no more than five games in a single position in 2019, and I have to admit, I’m not really sure what his best position is any more.
Which means that 2020 is a huge season for him.
Because after 57 Super Rugby games over four seasons, Hodge is in danger of having the utility tag dangling around his neck for the rest of his career if he can’t nail down whatever his best position is soon.