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Opinion

Aussie youngsters impressive but Super Rugby teams ordinary

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2nd February, 2020
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“He reminds me,” Kurtley Beale told writers before the Waratahs played the Crusaders in their opening match of the 2020 Super Rugby season, “a bit of Izzy”.

The ‘he’ was Mark Nawaqanitawase, the lanky youngster selected to play on the wing for the Waratahs.

Izzy, of course, is Israel Folau, as controversial off the field as he was brilliant on it.

Being compared with Folau for his on-the-field exploits is placing a high burden on any youngster.

After all, Folau was the most prolific try-scorer in Super Rugby history with 60 tries in 90 matches.

This incredible record was achieved despite the fact that for a majority of his matches for the Waratahs he was not played as a winger, far and away his best position.

The outstanding aspects of Folau’s play were his leaping for high balls, his ability to hit the ground running after a catch, his incredible try-scoring rate, and his ability to remain calm in tight situations.

These were the tests that Nawaqanitawase had to pass in his debut Super Rugby match to validate Beale’s big call.

It is a pleasure to report that the youngster passed these tests, although his high-ball acrobatics were curtailed by some poor kicking from the Waratahs backs.

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From the early moments of the match, it was clear that the youngster was in his element.

He made most of his tackles, fluffed a kick, and was lethal when given the sniff of an opportunity. He scored two tries in three minutes in the second half to reduce the Crusaders’ lead to only six points when it looked like we were going to watch a Waratahs thrashing.

Mark Nawaqanitawase in action for the Waratahs

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

His first try required a spectacular leap through a tackle and a one-handed plant.

His second try, only minutes later, involved him making a decisive intercept when the Crusaders looked like scoring a try. He showed he had good pace to defeat the attempted tackle of Will Jordan, the super-talented Crusaders outside back who is being touted for the All Blacks this year.

Dave Rennie, the new Wallabies coach, has insisted that age or experience won’t be his criterion in selecting his teams.

For the record, Folau made a brilliant Test debut for the Wallabies against the British and Irish Lions, scoring a sensational try after only 14 Super Rugby matches. This is around the same number of Super Rugby matches Nawaqanitawase will have played if he continues to be selected for the Waratahs, as his form suggests he will be.

The other highly-touted youngster playing for the Waratahs was Will Harrison, the youngest Waratah to debut in the number ten jersey.

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It is much harder to be brilliant as a playmaker than it is as a winger. Harrison looked composed, even cocky at times. He was neat with his passing and, to his credit, the Waratahs back line flowed much more effectively than it has in the past several years.

There was much to like about his resilience in taking on the defence from time to time, much like the Brumbies playmaker Noah Lolesio, another 20-year-old who like Harrison played with a calmness that was impressive.

The playmaker role, though, is not as easily mastered as playing on the wing.

Harrison, for instance, was given a master class of how to play his position by Richie Mo’unga.

While he was on the field, Mo’unga was brilliant.

He knew that Harrison was inexperienced so he targeted him with quick and effective rush tackles when the Waratahs were slow in clearing the ball from rucks.

Early on, to nullify the rush defence of the Waratahs, he kicked to the wings. Then later in the match, when the Waratahs were exploiting the Crusaders’ mistakes inside their 22, he started to kick long.

Richie Mo'unga of the Crusaders looks to kick

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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And then, to exploit the jumping power of the Crusaders’ sensational young wing, the physically imposing Leicster Fainga’anuku, he punted massive bombs for the youngster to power through and snatch.

Incidentally, I hope that the Waratahs coach Rob Penney notes this middle-field bomb tactical variation of the pass-kick to the winger because Nawaqanitawase is every bit as lethal in the air as Fainga’anuka, providing the kick is appropriate.

And now we come to the much-touted Queensland Reds youngsters, Harry Wilson and Liam Wright, the number eight and number seven for the Reds.

To give readers a sense of these players, Wilson has been compared by the veteran Queensland rugby writer Wayne Smith to Mark Loane. Loane, like Wilson, made his debut as number eight for the Reds as a teenager.

Those of us of a certain age will maintain forever that Australian rugby has never produced a number eight as powerful in his running and defence, as well as being as inspirational to his teammates, as Loane.

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There was enough evidence from the tough match against the Brumbies to suggest that Wilson might some day be come to be seen as a successor to Mark the Great.

Liam Wright, too, is a throwback to another Queensland loose forward legend, Liam Gill.

Wright, who has a rangy build, has a similar skill set with his passing and running and a mongrel attitude at the breakdown as the original Liam.

These two youngsters were most impressive. They maintained their workrate right to the end of the match, with Wilson scoring a try at the end, which gave the Reds a narrow opportunity to snatch a victory that seemingly had slipped away from them after they squandered their half-time lead of 17-7.

It was noticeable, too, that Michael Hooper – now released from captaincy duties for the Waratahs – played one of his best games against the Crusaders. His work at the breakdown, particularly, was stronger and more effective than what we’ve seen from him in the past.

There is nothing like a bit of pressure from youngsters for a place in the Wallabies to bring out the best in an old-timer.

The Reds under Brad Thorn have a bad case of the away-from-home blues, the inability to win matches outside of Queensland.

Brad Thorn

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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The record is something like four away wins in 33 matches.

This is unlikely to improve as they now are on their way to South Africa to play the Lions.

The results of the South African sides over the weekend indicate that they have taken inspiration from the Springboks’ magnificent Rugby World Cup triumph.

Visiting sides are going to find it hard to win against them, especially in South Africa, if the Stormers’ monstering of the Hurricanes is any indication.

The Waratahs play the Blues in Newcastle. The Aucklanders, like the Reds, have been singing the away blues now for several years.

The Blues looked like an improved side in the first half of their match with the Chiefs in Hamilton. But the injection of some senior Chiefs players, especially Aaron Cruden, turned the match around for the home side.

The Brumbies play the Rebels in Canberra, a match they should win after the Rebels played like headless chooks against a willing Sunwolves side in Japan.

The Rebels had enjoyed a five-year winning streak against the Sunwolves. But they were out-played and out-enthused by a Sunwolves side of bits and pieces.

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There are questions that are going to be asked of Dave Wessels if this poor form of the Rebels continues.

The worst aspect about the play of the Rebels is that, according to Nick Wasiliev writing for Rugby.com.au, “to add insult to injury, two of the biggest standout performances (for the Sunwolves) were from former Brumby James Dargaville and former Red/Rebel Jake Schatz”.

Why do players perform better when they go overseas and leave Australian coaches?