Bill it as the day Super Rugby AU came alive in 2021.
The Brumbies and the Reds played out a classic at GIO stadium last Saturday, the Queensland team storming back from a 17-0 deficit to overwhelm the injury and suspension-stricken 2020 champions.
Coach Brad Thorn should rightfully take the plaudits. As should Taniela Tupou, Suliasi Vunivalu and Hunter Paisami. But the post-match discourse has focused on the game management of flyhalf James O’Connor, and it’s hard to argue with that.
With leadership, composure from the tee, and effective decision-making, O’Connor complements this fiery Reds backline perfectly. The Chiefs must be kicking themselves, as O’Connor would have been a significant upgrade on Bryn Gatland and Kaleb Trask this year.
What makes this performance more interesting is the context of the Wallabies 10 jersey. O’Connor is comfortably the incumbent, but at 30 is not likely to be the long-term solution.
Moreover, he was unable to shift the tide against the All Blacks and Los Pumas in last year’s Bledisloe and Tri Nations games once inside-centre Matt To’omua went off injured at Eden Park. There’s an argument that without a playmaker at 12, the helter-skelter, low-percentage game of midfielders Paisami and Jordan Petaia does not translate well to the finer margins of international rugby.
Certainly, Petaia’s acrobatic winning try masks the fact that he – like Rieko Ioane across the ditch – has simply not made a compelling enough case to wear the number 13 jersey.
If not O’Connor, then who? Noah Lolesio is still feeling his way into the role of chief playmaker at the Brumbies after an injury-hit 2020.
He was unfortunate to be at the helm when the All Blacks monstered the Wallabies 43-5 in Sydney, although his try at the start of the second half offered a glimpse of the running power he brings from flyhalf. That’s one advantage he has over O’Connor – the Reds man simply does not have the legs of his younger days, and so relies on his backline and scrumhalf to do the running for him.
In a time when the game has been criticised for being too defensive, the pendulum could swing towards line breaking fly-halves – which may be one of the reasons England have struggled with George Ford and Owen Farrell at the reins.
However, running power is not enough, and the jury is still out on Lolesio (though Rugby Australia and Dave Rennie should invest all they can into making him the Wallabies’ next great flyhalf).
There are slim pickings beyond the top two. To’omua has been consistently excellent at 10 for the Melbourne Rebels, but is hamstrung by his even greater excellence at inside centre.
He provides the second playmaking option better than anyone in Australian rugby at the moment, stepping into first receiver to mix things up and take the pressure off his flyhalf.
Paisami, though game, does not yet have the distribution or game intelligence to match To’omua at 12, which means that opponents simply have to shut down O’Connor to stop the Reds, or the Wallabies, playing. For the time being then, To’omua is more useful at 12 than 10.
The Waraths and the Force don’t give much hope either. Will Harrison is an excellent goalkicker but has not shown enough as a 10, admittedly in an insipid Waratahs team. Meanwhile, Jono Lance and Jake McIntyre at the Force should not even be in the conversation if the Wallabies are serious about challenging at the top table.
This leaves us with a two-horse race between O’Connor and Lolesio for the Wallabies 10 jersey. The rest of the Super Rugby AU season will go a long way towards settling this debate, as will – perhaps even more so – the Trans-Tasman competition we all hope will go ahead later this year.
The former Sale bad boy has struck the first blow, and it’s hard to see him being unseated if he keeps playing like this.
What’s difficult to escape, however, is the growing feeling that for the first time since the Quade Cooper years, the Wallabies might finally have authentic options at flyhalf to challenge the very best in the international game.