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The big questions coming out of the shortest ever Australian rugby pre-season

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Expert
20th January, 2020
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Me not being ready for a rugby season is not new. Indeed, it’s become an annual event.

I recall writing a very similar opening line this time last year, and quite likely the year before that, too.

But this year, we’ve hit new heights of ridiculousness. January 31 for the start of a professional rugby season in Australia – and all the SANZAAR nations, come to think of it – is simply way too early.

And it’s still not really been properly explained why the season – in a non-Rugby World Cup year – has started so early. Kick off comes a full two weeks earlier than last year.

Regardless, Super Rugby starts next Friday – whether you or I or anyone is ready or not.

With 2020 especially being a season of rebuilding and regeneration in Australian rugby, here’s a few questions I’ve been contemplating – albeit briefly – during the short off-season.

How many under-20s will debut in Round 1?
If there’s one thing synonymous with Australian rugby, it’s the annual over-hyping young talent, such is the desperation for the next big thing to emerge. The next Tim Horan, the next George Smith – heck, maybe the current George Smith – we’re all desperate to see the next generation of talent.

But in defence of Australian rugby fans this year, plenty of the hype around the graduation of last season’s outstanding Australian under-20s group into senior rugby is well and truly justified.

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During last season’s NRC, I had a great chat with NSW Country coach Robert Taylor, who also oversees Sydney University in Sydney’s Shute Shield competition. He’d seen a few of the Junior Wallabies playing for and against him for Uni, and got to work with a few more with the Eagles.

“Sometimes you get that talent, but sometimes the mental side is 50-50. Guys might still like to party, you know, and celebrating their own success and talent, but these guys are really driven, and in a humble way,” Taylor told me last October.

We started discussing back-rower Will Harris, but the conversation gravitated toward the wider Junior Wallabies squad. Taylor had Angus Bell, Mark Nawaqanitawase and Joey Walton with him at the Eagles, but he had big wraps on the likes Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson, too.

“They’re all business, and I think it’s an outstanding era for Australian rugby that potentially going to come up,” he said.

“That’s often the issue. If you get one or two come through, sometimes they can disappear because the overarching culture that they’re in can sometimes drop their potential. But when you get a group where the majority of them are very good on and off the field, they can really shape the standards of a wider group.

“I’ve just been amazed by them. That Aussie 20s group is the real deal. They compete out there, they back themselves.

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“They’re not just hype, and there’s a long way to go for them yet, but there’s certainly the signs that if this group comes through together and forms the core of the Wallabies in a few years’ time, they could be a World Cup-winning team.”

Lachlan Lonergan and the Junior Wallabies celebrate

(Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images)

Now, before you dismiss all this as a Sydney coach over-blowing talent, just remember that Taylor arrived in Sydney only a few years ago from Auckland, where he spent much of his time overseeing development of young talent for the province. He knows talent when he sees it.

His comments came flooding back to me when reading some of the reporting from last week’s first trial games. Several of the young Reds impressed, including Isaac Lucas at flyhalf.

Plenty raved about the performance of Nawaqanitawase, playing in the less-than-familiar 15 jersey for the Waratahs. Will Harrison looked very handy when he came on. It’s all really exciting.

So how many will debut? Well, we might get more of an idea once we see more of the Rebels and Brumbies this week, but already I’m thinking it will be more than a few. Maybe even upwards of ten or a dozen. We’ll see.

Who will show the most patience at ten?
All four sides will have new flyhalves in 2020, although Lucas got a bit of a taste at number ten late last season and throughout the NRC. And even though Mack Mason and Harrison got a chance in last week’s trial, the Waratahs are still making too much noise about playing Kurtley Beale at first receiver for the first time in a long time.

Kurtley Beale

(Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

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Matt Toomua will almost certainly get the nod ahead of Andrew Deegan down in Melbourne, while in Canberra, it sounds like the running between Noah Lolesio and Bayley Kuenzle has been mouth-wateringly close.

But with new tens running show everywhere, which coach will give their man the most time to adjust? Or put a different way, which coach which panic first at the selection table, if the first few games don’t go so well?

Is lock going to remain Australia’s problem position?
I hope that’s not the case, but I fear it is.

You can’t just replace the likes or Rory Arnold, Sam Carter and Adam Coleman easily. Around the traps, after Rob Simmons at the Waratahs, the second-rower with the most Test experience is Izack Rodda. And he’s 23.

There’s talent around the states: Ryan McCauley looks handy at the Waratahs, and Jed Holloway spent more time at lock during his guest stint with Munster in Ireland. Angus Blyth and Harry Hockings have been doing a solid apprenticeship in Queensland, as has Darcy Swain with the Brumbies.

He’s got Nick Frost with him. Matt Philip leads a promising but inexperienced group of locks down in Melbourne.

But they’re all raw. Really raw, in some cases. I hope lock isn’t going to a position of concern. But… you know.

Which coach is under the most pressure?
I don’t really think any of the coaches are under any real pressure, to clear that up straight away.

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But I get the feeling that questions will emerge for Brad Thorn and Dave Wessels should their respective sides start the season poorly. Both are very good young coaches learning their way, but I just feel like the microscope might come down on them the quickest. I hope I’m wrong.

Brad Thorn

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Bonus point: Is the Will Skelton chase real or imagined?
The Saracens situation has been fascinating to watch, and it certainly hasn’t taken long for the chat about repatriating the former Waratahs and Wallabies lock to ramp up.

He’d go a long way to addressing the point two questions above, but my wonder is this: is the lure of the Wallabies jersey strong enough to surrender maybe two thirds of his current income? And why shouldn’t he stay in England and ensure Saracens pay his full contract value for the next two seasons?

And here’s one more question: how crooked must their books look if Saracens chose relegation from the Premiership and possible exclusion from European competition instead of opening up their accounts to the auditors? They preferred to keep their books closed!

But while the Saracens saga will carry on for some time yet, the Super Rugby season is just ten days away.

So I guess it’s time to just get ready.