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Opinion

Dear Australian rugby: Cool your jets. Love, Australian rugby

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Expert
3rd August, 2020
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Every now and then, something is said in a press conference that immediately breaks free of the standard cliché and routine.

In those moments you find yourself in something of a double-take; “did I hear that right?”

Press conferences, generally speaking, are pretty harmless affairs drawing from a mostly common pool of questions, which produce mostly predictable answers and in turn, any number of versions of the same story. Media releases are the same, except they don’t take questions.

I found myself in that moment of press conference double-take late last week, when Brumbies coach Dan McKellar started talking about the confidence he and his coaching team had in sending Darcy Swain and Nick Frost – with just over 20 appearances between them – out to start their first game as a lock pairing at Super Rugby level.

Having already conceded that after years of running the likes of Sam Carter, Rory Arnold, and Blake Enever out, and even Cadeyrn Neville and Murray Douglas in 2020, the Swain-Frost pairing was comfortably the youngest second row he’d seen in a Brumbies jersey, McKellar then started talking about expectations around young players.

“… and all of a sudden, they’re the next Wallaby,” McKellar said, as my brain comprehended the message being picked up by my ears.

It was a hugely valid point he was making, and no doubt you’ve seen quotes and paragraphs conveying the message: that we in Australian rugby are all well and truly guilty of overhyping the ‘the next big thing’.

And it was such a valid message that it bears telling in full.

The question came from Christy Doran, ex of Fox Sports, now writing for RUGBY.com.au, who asked whether McKellar was confident in the Brumbies’ development programs, and their ability to turn two young locks who haven’t started together into the next Rory Arnolds or Sam Carters.

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Tom Banks and the Brumbies after their semi-final loss

How good are the Brumbies at developing talent? (Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty Images)

McKellar responded: “Yeah, we’re certainly very confident in how we develop our players, and with the work we do with them in the background so that when we do expose them making sure they’re ready to perform and play well.

“I think in Australia though, if somebody puts in a good performance, all of a sudden they’re the next Wallaby. We’ve got to be a little bit more patient than that. I think it gets a bit ridiculous and it does the players no favours at all.

“So let’s let Frost and Swain, or Trevor Hosea and (Esei) Ha’angana from the Rebels, whoever it might be, just let them develop and let them become good Super Rugby players, play good games consistently for their franchise, and then let’s start worrying about what the future holds for them.

“I just think we get a little bit too excited in any position, with any player at the moment.

“You’re not going to be a good Test player on the back of a good half an hour at Super Rugby level. It’s about doing it week in, week out, doing it consistently well one game after the next.

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“Frost, for example, had a good solid game last week (his starting debut against the Western Force). Back it up, back it up again this week, and back it up consistently and do it for the next fifty games, and you know, if you sneak a Test or two in between then, you’re obviously playing well. But just don’t rush them.”

I followed up on this topic, asking McKellar if this propensity to overblow the achievements of young talented players was frustrating as a coach. I’d not finished the question before he was nodding in agreement.

He rightly dismissed the suggestions of several rugby league journalists last week around teenage prodigy Joseph Suaalii being parachuted into the Wallabies later this year. “It’s madness. As if they would do that,” he said.

He then added, “I think we’re just too quick to… we’re looking for a diamond in the rough all the time. Just let players develop, and they’ll get to that level as they progress throughout their careers.”

Which brings us to what has been some great rugby played through Super Rugby AU, and in fairness, with plenty of it from the young players that we are probably over-judging currently. With the sheer number of Test and Super Rugby caps that headed for the departure gates after the Rugby World Cup, it was always going to happen.

When gaps need to be filled, the first instinct is not to find the right shape to exactly fill said gap, but to find something, anything that will at the very least stem the flow pouring out of the gap.

What has compounded this has been the really impressive graduation of so many of last season’s almost world-conquering Junior Wallabies to Super Rugby level.

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Just of the team named for the final against France in Argentina, it’s a long list of names to have already taken the next step: Angus Bell, Lachlan Lonergan, Josh Nasser, Trevor Hosea, Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight, Will Harris, Michael McDonald, Will Harrison, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Noah Lolesio, Isaac Lucas, Joe Cotton, Esei Ha’angana, Nick Frost, Ben Donaldson, and Joey Walton have all debuted.

Mark Nawaqanitawase in action for the Waratahs

Mark Nawaqanitawase. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

It’s hard not to get excited about what plenty of these guys have shown so far, but it’s worth remembering these guys really are just starting their careers. And especially of the guys who maybe haven’t quite looked at ease, it’s definitely worth remembering these guys are just starting their careers.

A bit was made of the Pete Samu-Harry Wilson match-up going into Saturday night’s game, and while they’re very different players, both were among their teams best yet again in the two-point thriller.

But McKellar’s point in all this is that it’s insanity to even try and put them on the same level. Samu, for one thing, has lived a rugby life that has seen him slog away in club rugby for years before getting an opportunity with Tasman and then the Crusaders in New Zealand. He’s also turning 29 later this year.

“All the signs are good there (about Wilson’s ability and performances so far in 2020), but let’s not think he’s going to be the next Mark Loane or Toutai Kefu after half a dozen games; let’s let him get there over time,” McKellar said, ever the Queenslander.

Brumbies

Pete Samu. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Of course, international rugby is a long way from certain in 2020.

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The current COVID-19 situation in Australia is far from settled, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has quite rightly put the idea of a trans-Tasman ‘travel bubble’ on the backburner. That move simply has to create doubt about the likelihood of Bledisloe Cup Tests being played later this year.

Australian rugby’s tendency to fast-track young talent could easily be scuppered by no international rugby being played this year at all.

In the meantime, cooling our jets isn’t a bad idea.

Until there is definitely Test Matches to select teams for, let’s perhaps just let these kids play for a bit longer. And continue to enjoy what they’re serving up.