Back in 1996, there was huge excitement when rugby went professional and Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations tournaments began.
In the wake of a World Cup, sometimes provincial tournaments can seem lacklustre.
With so much talent and experience inevitably moving on to the money-green pastures of Europe and Asia after a World Cup, a yawning gap is left for new blood to fill. You may think about the litany of players that have left and think it couldn’t be anything but a loss, but you would be wrong. Not because Super Rugby will not miss them, but because it opens the door for a new generation.
With the gap left by the stalwarts comes the promise of new talent and the excitement of opportunity. At no point in recent memory has it felt like so much has changed in one year for each Aussie Super Rugby team. So let’s check in on the most exciting Aussie young guns in Super Rugby.
The Tahs haven’t seen a shake-up like this is a long time. They have a new coach, a new captain and a sprinkle of new blood to add to some strong experience.
The Tahs’ squad has a nice balance between youth and experience and made a smart off-season move to acquire Jack Maddocks, who is one of the most exciting young back line talents in Australia and at just 22 already has six Wallabies caps to his name.
At the end of last year, Maddocks would be the first to raise his hand and say he didn’t play as well as he wanted to. Missing out on the Rugby World Cup squad was a big blow for him but at 22 years old he still has a mountain of time to make up for that. Moving back to his home state and city will surely help Maddocks back into form. The biggest worry might be where Waratahs coach Rob Penney plays him due to his ability to play fullback, five-eighth and wing.
In addition to that, Junior Wallabies Mark Nawaqanitawase and Will Harrison have been named in the starting line-up to face the all-conquering Crusaders on 1 February.
Putting Will Harrison in at flyhalf against the Crusaders shows you just how much talent this bloke has. He was one of the main reasons that the Junior Wallabies made it to the final of the World Rugby Under-20 Championship last year.
Harrison likes to play direct, drawing defenders and opening space for those outside him. He has a range of passes to use off both his left and right and his tactical kicking game is a real weapon and will only get better with time. One of the biggest wraps on him, though, is his calm head under pressure and this characteristic in a flyhalf cannot be underestimated.
Too often in recent years have Australian five-eighths been placed under pressure by opposition and come up short or shifted the ball unnecessarily. Harrison will be a great addition to Australia’s flyhalf stocks and if he continues to improve the sky is the limit.
Mark Nawaqanitawase is another Sydney-born player who comes with massive wraps. While initially being unheralded at schoolboy level he got a break by being offered a two-month trail in the Waratahs’ Gen Blue and from there he never looked back. Making the next squad and being a key piece in Australia’s first Oceania U20s title and the Junior Wallabies run in the 2019 World Rugby Under-20 Championship.
Nawaqanitawase is a big, powerful outside back who is great under the high ball. He can play both fullback and wing, excelling at fullback in a recent trial game but look for him on the wing for most of the season as he learns the ropes at Super Rugby level.
Recently Kurtley Beale likened Nawaqanitawase’s talent and skill to that of Israel Folau, which gives you an indication of his potential. He also holds the record for the second fastest World Rugby Under-20 Championship try and will surely be get a few more meat pies under his belt this year.
Rounding out the Junior Wallabies flavour to the Waratahs are two young forwards tipped to make debuts on Saturday: Angus Bell and Carlo Tizzano.
Angus Bell is a 118kg prop who is quickly learning what it takes to be a prop at Super Rugby level. A former captain of the Australian under-18s, he has clear leadership potential. His size and power are exciting, and he is incredibly mobile for a big boy, giving him great potential in the modern game.
Carlo Tizzano is hard-working flanker and Perth native who will bring a lot to the squad. He was named the Western Force’s members MVP last year, and working his way into a bench spot within a squad that includes a number of quality loose forwards for the first game of the Super Rugby season says all you need to know about this young man.
The Reds have been the form team in trials, and although its always important not to get carried away with trial form, this has the feeling of something different. Since Brad Thorn’s appointment as head coach in October 2017 the man has been on a mission to completely rebuild the Reds’ team and culture. This is a massive job and it has showed in his first two years in charge, but they have been on the right trajectory.
This year marks the year where the rubber really meets the road for the Reds squad. They now know their identity and the way they want to play. Although they did have a mass exodus of players from last year, they have added some crucial pieces and the core of the squad remains.
Jordan Petaia is one of the most exciting players in Super Rugby and he showed us why when he was given a chance at the Rugby World Cup. He is the type of player that you hate defending against. He is big, quick, skilful and powerful but one of the best things about him is his ability to stay strong through his core and break tackles or give himself an extra second to offload. I can’t wait to see him working more closely with James O’Connor.
The Reds also have the most promising young halves paring in Australia in Isaac Lucas and Tate McDermott. They already have a good understanding of each other – as they should, because sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart – and will look to grow this connection this year.
Isaac Lucas is one of four brothers who have all played professional rugby in Australia. Lucas is adept at multiple positions across the back line including centre, fullback and wing but Brad Thorn made the decision early that Lucas was to be his five-eighth.
Lucas has excellent footwork and great passing skills and again, just like his counterpart in NSW, he has an unflappable nature. It is this focus that has Thorn putting his faith in him – and now having a handful of Super Rugby games under his belt, he will look to move to the next level.
Tate McDermott is one of the most exciting young halfbacks in Australia at the moment and it’s easy to see why. He is quick, he makes good decisions and has a crisp pass. He also has a knack for scoring tries, scoring four in six games in Super Rugby last year.
McDermott is the type of halfback other backs love to see as he is always a threat around the ruck, bringing in the defence and opening space out wide. In addition to this, he also shows leadership qualities having previously captained the Junior Wallabies in 2018. If he and Lucas can continue to strengthen their understanding of each other this year then opposition should be worried about this Reds side.
In the forwards, some more junior Wallabies in Harry Wilson and Fraser McReight are set for big years in the Reds jersey.
Harry Wilson will make his debut at number eight on Friday night against the Brumbies. His work ethic and skills have impressed Brad Thorn so much that he had no hesitation in selecting him to start in such a key position with no Super Rugby experience.
Wilson is a six-foot-four monster who has the frame to really cause trouble for defenders off the back of the scrum. Not only is he big but he is also skilful, particularly with his handling ability, which is always a massive plus for a number eight. Keep an eye on this former Queensland Premier Rugby U19 player of the year.
Fraser McReight made his Super Rugby debut for Queensland last year, proving himself to be a talent to watch. He is a big and strong back-rower who has a mass of power and grit. His ability to make good decisions in the ruck, and in defence, he has added to his appeal. This is why he has captained the Junior Wallabies as well as Brisbane City in the NRC.
Liam Wright is a back-rower who also deserves a shout-out as a young star. Wright made his debut for Queensland in 2018 and in 2019 finished runner-up to Samu Kerevi as the Reds best player, which is quite a feat for a 22-year-old.
Recently Brad Thorn named Wright as the captain of the Reds in 2020, which is all you really need to know about this young man. He is strong, committed and a natural-born leader who will be looking to go one better in the Pilecki Medal ranking this year.
As per usual the Brumbies have been quietly going about their pre-season work, apart from having to move training camps due to the excessive smoke in the nation’s capital. Their squad, when compared to some of the others in Australian Super Rugby, seems devoid of big names but this is just how the Brumbies like it.
The Brumbies have had a history of identifying and nurturing young talent and they have a few gems that they will be looking to polish this season. Case in point is Noah Lolesio.
Lolesio is another young flyhalf that is looking to catch Wallabies selectors’ eyes this season and will start his first Super Rugby match on Friday night against the Reds. He has proven himself at every previous provincial level and will be looking to take the next step.
Lolesio could be the long-term prospect for the Brumbies’ flyhalf position. He has a good rugby brain, direct attacking mindset and passing skills that keep defenders guessing. Combine this with his solid ball handling and you have a talent that just might make waves in the ACT.
Another Brumbies young gun who has been given a start on Friday night is Tom Wright. Wright has a stint in rugby league after representing Australia at schoolboy rugby. Injuries unfortunately hampered his progress in league so he has returned to his original code and is looking to make an impact.
Wright is a utility back that can cover just about every position in the back line. Currently he is played on the wing and you can see why – he has speed, good footwork and an ability to create space for himself out wide.
Darcy Swain and Lachlan Lonergan are two forwards to watch grow this season at the Brumbies. Swain made his first appearance for the Brumbies in 2018 and has been growing as a second rower ever since. Training with Sam Carter and Rory Arnold no doubt has something to do with this.
Swain stands at six-foot-five and is a healthy 108kg with more room to pack weight onto his 22-year-old frame. He is a no-nonsense lock who can jump, smash runners in defence and truck it up with the best of them. But what has really impressed is his growing potential as a leader and voice within the team.
Lachlan Lonergan is a player that is growing into himself as a front-rower. The hooker comes direct from the Brumbies’ Academy along with his brother Ryan, who is the back-up halfback to the incumbent Joe Powell.
Lonergan is yet another member of the successful Junior Wallabies squad from last year and was one of their outstanding talents.
At a time when the hooking stocks in Australia are a bit thin, there is room for a new player on the scene. Lonergan is hard-working and good at set piece, which is crucial for a young hooker. Stepping up as the back-up for Folau Fainga’a will give him some great experience for him to grow his overall skill set.
The Rebels are a team under pressure. Their finals miss last year was heartbreaking after fading badly at the end of the season and it almost made Dave Wessels walk away from the team. Losing the experience of Adam Coleman, Will Genia and Quade Cooper in the off-season sets a tough task for the Rebels but they have a new approach and some new faces.
Frank Lomani and Semisi Tupou are two promising young backs for the Rebels and will have their opportunities this year.
With Genia leaving, Lomani now has the perfect chance to stake his claim as the starting halfback for the Rebels. His form in NRC is incredible and his pace is blistering. He still has some skills to develop but being a regular starter will help fix that.
Lomani is the type of player that demands attention from opposition defences and Matt Toomua will love the extra space he has to play with. If Lomani reaches anywhere near his potential, then he will be an absolute star for the Rebels this year.
Semisi Tupou is another utility back who excelled at the junior levels. He is exceedingly quick and has the hands to handle wild passes as well as set up others.
Tupou has slowly been building confidence at Super Rugby level over the past couple of seasons as is still somehow only 20 years old. His pace, elusiveness and power will be a great asset for the Rebels in their tilt for a maiden finals berth.
In the forwards, Robert Leota and Trevor Hosea are two young Melbourne-bred forwards who have all the skills to make it into higher honours.
Leota is the older of the two at only 22 and had a breakout year last year after being in the Rebels’ system for a few years. He is growing into a fine blindside flanker with power, aggression and pace. If he continues on his trajectory he will be one of the top loose forwards in the country.
Hosea has been patiently waiting in the wings for his chance to get his first cap for the Rebels and 2020 is his year. Playing consistent rugby in the NRC and Junior Wallabies has kept him fit and hungry. Not afraid of tough work or dark places, he is someone you want on your team because you don’t want to have a six-foot-six, 115kg man on the opposition.
These are just a few of the raft of young players coming through the Australian Super Rugby system right now and there are many talented youngsters that I did not have the time to cover.
While we may lament the loss of some of our stalwarts after the Rugby World Cup, it means that an entire new generation has a chance to come through and prove their worth – and I have a feeling that this generation in particular is looking golden.