It’s fair to say Jordan Petaia’s career has been more hype than substance.
He is undoubtedly a supremely gifted athlete and capable of scoring spectacular tries. He remains one of the only Wallabies backs with an x-factor about him. And his athleticism and ability to burst through the line would have most armchair enthusiasts penning him down for at least the number 23 jersey.
Yet Petaia has failed to dispel concerns about his handling and technique. To be fair to him, this has been a consistent problem across the board for the Wallabies in the last five years.
Promising performances have been hamstrung by elementary mistakes – lineouts not going straight, conceding cheap penalties, dropping the ball on attack or flinging hail-Mary cutout passes.
Petaia has unfortunately followed this trend, which means he does not garner trust in the crucial centre position. There are parallels to Rieko Ioane for the All Blacks – Ioane is a devastating winger but does not have the presence to dominate in the centres, which may be one of the reasons why Ian Foster has parachuted him back onto the left wing for Bledisloe 1 this weekend at Eden Park in Auckland.
Would Petaia have made this week’s starting XV had Marika Koroibete and the gang not had a collective brain fade? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, against the All Blacks you need to make your moments count, and Petaia is capable of breaking the black wall in a way most Wallabies backs probably are not. However, Koroibete has been Australia’s outstanding back in the last 18-24 months and is arguably the first name on the teamsheet alongside skipper Michael Hooper.
At best, Petaia would have been on the bench in place of utility back Reece Hodge, looking to provide spark in the same way Taniela Tupou would from about the 60-minute mark.
But things happen and here we are: Fillipo Daugunu is out injured, Koroibete is suspended from the team and Petaia joins on the wing. This is arguably his chance to shine: free of the defensive covering responsibilities in the centres, he can concentrate on his contest with Ioane. As coach Dave Rennie said on Thursday, ‘He looks really good and we’re excited for that…We like him as a winger…He’s very good aerially, has a great kicking game and a handful out wide we think.’
It’s hard to disagree with Rennie’s assessment. It’s also clear that the coach has, intentionally or otherwise, taken the pressure off Petaia to be the superstar by building his team around young guns Noah Lolesio and Tate McDermott. Lolesio in particular emerged from the France series as Australia’s leader, a calm goal kicker under pressure and a reliable pivot around which the backline can flourish.
The training he is receiving from Quade Cooper – a surprise but welcome addition to the Wallabies camp – will only develop him further but the baton appears to have been handed to him earlier than planned due to James O’Connor’s injury troubles.
McDermott and Hunter Paisami have also grown into their starting positions and look confident in them – Paisami in particular looks to be nailed on in the centres for Australia in the years to come.
All this is to say that the pieces are in place for Petaia to flourish. Against the fearsome All Blacks at fortress Eden Park, there is no middle ground: distinguish yourself or go home with your tail between your legs. That is what Rennie will drum into his players before they walk out onto the Auckland turf on Saturday.
He will know that if Petaia puts his mind to it, he can bring the Bledisloe home for the green and gold.