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Opinion

Club or country: Balancing each side's needs at the selection table

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Editor
6th August, 2020
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2169 Reads

By moving Matt To’omua to inside centre, Dave Wessels may make the Melbourne Rebels a more competitive rugby side. He may also make selecting the Wallabies’ starting XV later this year trickier.

Hopefully 2020 gives us a moment’s break from its usual tricks and allows a form of international rugby in the southern hemisphere to go ahead later this year. Rugby Championship, Bledisloe Cup, whatever we get, let’s assume Dave Rennie will have to pick an Australian side for a few Tests sometime around November.

Much as Super Rugby form will influence the make-up of that side, there are a few positions which would be unlikely to house a selection bolter, given the incumbents’ recent form in Wallaby gold. It would be quite the shock for someone to usurp Michael Hooper at openside flanker, Nic White at scrumhalf or Marika Koroibete on the wing.

I’d have To’omua at flyhalf on that list too. Without wanting to repeat too much of last month’s discussion about the position, the Rebels vice-captain prefers playing at first receiver, has controlled games well behind an average pack, and is more than capable of defending well in the no.10 channel.

Being able to handle the increased physicality of Test rugby is a critical point. For all the promise Noah Lolesio and Will Harrison provide as future Australian playmakers, thrusting them into a starting role against the All Blacks or Springboks so early in their 20s will do them no favours.

By all means, have them in the squad, throw them in from the bench once or twice, but let them get stronger before slapping the no.10 on their back.

James O’Connor’s excellent form for the Reds does complicate the ‘To’omua at flyhalf’ argument, but I maintain he’s better suited to standing one step further away from the ruck than he is at first receiver. To’omua at 10 and O’Connor outside him at 12 would be the optimal set-up if the Wallabies, as was originally scheduled, were taking on the All Blacks tomorrow in Bledisloe 1.

Matt Toomua

Matt To’omua. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

As it is, the roles are reversed at Super Rugby level this week. To’omua will start at inside centre tonight against the Brumbies while O’Connor remains at flyhalf for the Reds, which brings us back to the original point: the national consequences of domestic selections.

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In an ideal world, each potential Wallabies starter would be wearing the same number for club and country and could seamlessly slot into the position once the provincial season finishes and internationals begin. Not that anyone is going to be tricked into thinking we’re in an ideal world right now.

Instead, the reality is Queensland have no pure flyhalves but so many centres that they’ve got two men who wore no.13 for the Wallabies last year, neither of whom have been named at outside centre this weekend but will instead start at flyhalf and on the wing.

The Brumbies, on the other hand, have three young playmakers who could all end up playing Test rugby. Even their waterboy wore the no.10 for Australia last year. If we switch positions for a second, they also seem to have a monopoly on the country’s scrumhalf stocks.

Meanwhile, the Rebels have To’omua, plus a promising first-five who hasn’t yet been able to get a proper run in the position – at least he hadn’t until he was picked there for tonight’s match.

Ultimately, provincial coaches need to look after their provinces first and foremost. Much as I’d like to see James O’Connor playing at 12 each week, given the Reds’ flyhalf depth is nonexistent, Brad Thorn’s absolutely in the right to pick him at 10.

James O'Connor

(Photo by Patrick HAMILTON / AFP via Getty Images)

Likewise, starting Andrew Deegan is a reasonable enough move from Dave Wessels given his side haven’t clicked in attack. The problem lies more with an inconsistent forward pack than the backs, but a new 10-12-13 combination could prove more of a threat to the Brumbies. Just steer clear of constant positional changes, like Reece Hodge’s 2019 which saw him split 15 appearances between five different positions without starting more than five times in the same spot.

It might help the Wallabies for To’omua to be playing every game at flyhalf, but their coach’s concern is rightly about seeing a marked improvement from the Rebels, something the side and Wessels himself both desperately need before the finals.

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And hey, To’omua’s playmaking at inside centre could make Melbourne a far more dangerous side, and Deegan could put on a masterclass and take the no.10 jersey off his more experienced teammate.

They probably won’t, because it’s forecast to be a miserably wet night at Leichhardt Oval and they’re playing the undefeated ladder leaders. But they could. Theoretically.