“Age and treachery will triumph over youth and exuberance” was the encouraging message on a birthday card purchased recently for an older family member.
Given the transformation of the Wallabies’ fortunes during the Rugby Championship, in response to an infusion of back-line age and treachery, who could doubt the veracity of such a sentiment?
The narrative has swung dramatically since the start of the Test season when the story was all about the Wallabies’ young guns facing an equally youthful and promising French team.
Just two months later, livewire Tate McDermott was cooling his jets on the bench while the experienced Nic White called the shots from halfback during the Rugby Championship.
Noah Lolesio, the 21-year-old who kicked Australia to victory in July, had retreated to the stands to observe a 33-year-old master, Quade Cooper, going about his business.
As for Hunter Paisami, any claims he had for a quick return to inside centre were trampled into the dirt by a rampaging Samu Kerevi at his peak.
“Time in the saddle,” Michael Hooper called it when asked about Quade Cooper’s influence.
“All these guys (playmakers) have skill but … you can imagine the hours of tape he’s watched compared to a second or third-year ten, or the time he’s been on the park. Time in the saddle is huge and experience in that role. When you’re going into a game, you’re just confirming it on the weekend as opposed to trying to work it out on the spot.”
Youth and exuberance may be exciting but nothing beats experience.
In some ways, head coach Dave Rennie has faced a similar situation to the one encountered by predecessor Robbie Deans ten or so years ago. Deans had a golden generation coming through in Will Genia, David Pocock, Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper and James O’Connor.
Keen to make his mark, he threw them in the deep end. In the process, however, the old guard was dismantled.
Two of the Wallabies’ greatest players, George Smith and Matt Giteau, were lost to the Test team right at the point the team needed their experience to realistically challenge for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Veteran leaders like Nathan Sharpe were increasingly on the outer.
The excitement and promise of 2010 fizzled with the Wallabies’ underwhelming showing at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. A key reason was a team too weighted towards youth.
The average age of the team was just 25, when it needed to be at least two or three years older. In comparison, Michael Cheika’s Wallabies, who made such an impressive run to the 2015 Rugby World Cup final, were hugely experienced with an average age of 27.
Dave Rennie’s golden generation comes substantially (although not solely) from the 2019 Junior Wallabies squad, whose spirited campaign at the Under-20 World Championship ended with a single-point loss to France in the final.
From that team, Noah Lolesio, Harry Wilson and Angus Bell, as well as Fraser McReight and Lachie Lonergan, have already been awarded senior caps but, wisely, not yet the keys to the castle.
Instead, after seeing a wealth of opportunities cruelled by the absence of experienced game managers during the Bledisloe Cup series, Rennie recalled seasoned backs Nic White, Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi to complement the experience of Michael Hooper, James Slipper and Allan Ala’alatoa in the forwards.
Two unexpected victories against South Africa rocketed the team from seventh to third in World Rugby rankings in the space of a week. A range of factors contributed to the turnaround but there’s no denying that, with added experience, the back line was immediately more authoritative and composed.
As a result, in the second Test against the Springboks, Len Ikitau produced the breakout performance he’d been promising, while Tom Banks finally delivered something like his incisive Super Rugby play, before his unlucky break.
With experienced halves to boss them, the forwards, too, seemed next level. Organisation, connection, speed of reaction were key features of the second Springboks Test. It all reached inspired heights when Michael Hooper, Angus Bell and Taniela Tupou (experience and youth in perfect harmony!) combined to set up Marika Koroibete for one of the tries of the tournament.
Naturally, Dave Rennie will want to make hay while the sun shines and establish a winning habit. But therein lies a conundrum: with the return of experienced players to the team, what to do with the wealth of young talent waiting patiently for its turn?
Of the five 2019 Junior Wallabies contingent to have won senior caps, only one – Angus Bell – will be in the Spring Tour squad, while more experience will arrive in the shape of France-based forwards Rory Arnold, Will Skelton and Tolu Latu.
Sending young players home with a list of work-ons is no bad thing. Harry Wilson, Noah Lolesio, Fraser McReight and Lachie Lonergan will benefit from a rest and full pre-season with their Super Rugby squads, not to mention a demanding inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season in 2022.
They’ll have learnt from senior Wallabies during the 2021 campaigns but, ultimately, you can’t learn Test experience; you have to live it. Will the Wallabies’ youngsters get the experience they need to step up before the old hands step down?
Quade Cooper, while supremely fit, is the autumn of his career. Winter might be three years away or three weeks. His main competition at five-eighth, James O’Connor, is only a little younger and increasingly injury-prone, which makes the progress of Noah Lolesio and other promising playmakers vital.
James Slipper is able to share game time with 21-year-old Angus Bell – a healthy situation for them both – but accommodating both Michael Hooper and 22-year-old protégé Fraser McReight is more challenging.
Once, the Spring Tour might have been the time to give young pups a go and old dogs a rest, but even Japan can’t be trusted to know its place in the pecking order these days. Every game is a potential banana skin for a Wallabies team that must end the season on a high to sustain its newfound confidence.
Respecting the opposition, rewarding effort and ability, creating continuity and ensuring player welfare are always factors in who plays, when and how much. There’s no precise winning formula. However, it would be disappointing – and risky – if, having avoided Deans’ youth trap, Dave Rennie went too far in the other direction.
Four Rugby Championship victories on the trot – and particularly that watershed second Test against the Springboks – have given the Wallabies momentum and their supporters renewed hope.
It’s probably safe to assume that, in Rennie speak, the team has arrived at base camp. To reach the peak, and stay there or thereabouts, he’ll need both his golden oldies and his gilded youth.