The Right Stuff is Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, which chronicled the post-World War 2, American high-speed flight and space exploration program, focusing on the test pilots and astronauts who risked their lives in the name of discovery.
You can read Wolfe’s description of what the right stuff entailed in Chapter 2 at this link, but a short translation is the courage to keep competing and the ability to find a way to win.
It is clear that Reds captain Liam Wright has the right stuff, as demonstrated by his palpable desire to win, his canny play and his excellent leadership of the Queensland Reds through a difficult period in 2020, taking them all the way to the 2020 Super Rugby AU grand final.
However at 23 years of age and with five Test caps, Liam Wright is a relatively inexperienced captain. Were it not for the emergence of James O’Connor as interim captain, due to an injury to Wright at the beginning of the season, Wright’s relative inexperience would not be an issue. Nobody would ever have said, ‘Damn, we only have Liam Wright as captain’.
However, O’Connor has emerged as an outstanding captain. He is one of the most gifted all-round professional Australian rugby players in living memory and is 30 years old, with 55 Test caps to his name. O’Connor’s talent and experience as a player have translated directly into the captaincy, with seven wins out of the seven games that he has led the Reds in.
It is no insult to Wright to accept the reality that he is not currently at O’Connor’s level, because he has far less elite experience. To give the Reds the best chance to win their first silverware in ten years, it is clear that O’Connor should be returned to the captaincy for the grand final on May 8 at Suncorp Stadium.
Over the next couple of years, Wright should be considered as O’Connor’s apprentice, tapping O’Connor’s experience and helping to ensure that the Reds’ new culture of excellence lasts when O’Connor inevitably moves on. There should be no doubt that Wright is a man who can ensure that legacy, just as capably as he led the Reds through the difficulties of 2020.
As a player Wright is a bit unusual as he is a tall and relatively slim man who played number seven for most of his career. His body doesn’t fit the mould of a traditional short, quick number seven who pilfers, or a taller, heavier six who provides mobile muscle and jumps in the lineout.
Wright can fulfil both roles well at a Super Rugby level and the versatility that he brings is valuable. However, the players with the more position-specific body types who have been playing in his absence, Fraser McReight and Angus Scott-Young, have both demonstrated an edge over Wright this season.
However, it is possible to see Wright’s build as an opportunity rather than a problem. His excellent lineout abilities combined with his experience at seven make him the only genuine jumping number seven in Australia.
This potential is not well evidenced at the Reds where the other loose forwards such as Scott-Young and Seru Uru are also excellent jumpers. However at the national level, having Wright at seven would allow a player like Rob Valentini, who is a beast in contact but not a great jumper, to be played at six without compromising the lineout.
Against teams that have big forwards, good lineouts and who emphasise tight play, such as South Africa, England and Ireland, this combination could be formidable. It would provide the Wallabies the beef to win in contact and jumping ability to win the lineout, while the domains of the traditional seven, pilfering and open play, are less relevant in games with tight play and opponents with disciplined clean-outs.
Of course for Wright to develop as Australia’s jumping number seven who can also play six, he needs to have opportunities to play in the position with the Reds.
In Super Rugby Trans Tasman in the weeks to come it would be good to see him get his fair share of starts at openside, mixed up with starts at six. It would ensure that Wright, McReight and Scott-Young all develop, while managing their workloads.
However, for the Super Rugby AU final in just under a fortnight, the wisdom of disrupting selections and changing a game plan that won the Reds seven from seven prior to the changes with Wright’s return in Friday’s loss to the Force needs to be questioned.
It also needs to be asked how fair it is to not select players who have given the Reds their best season in a decade, to accommodate Wright. Wright will have plenty of opportunity to show us that he has the right stuff for years to come.