The talk of 2021 was the return of Quade Cooper to the Wallabies 10 jersey, which was key to the success against the Springboks in Australia.
This has led to the view that the Wallabies cannot succeed without Cooper at 10, with the alternative flyhalves Noah Lolesio and James O’Connor having a rough time in the international arena – Lolesio against the All Blacks and O’Connor in the United Kingdom.
The problem with pinning all hopes on Cooper is that he is going to be 35 by the time the World Cup comes around, so the Wallabies have to have contingencies for injury and form dips.
The Wallabies need to develop their depth at 10, with Lolesio and O’Connor being the two men with the most work to do. Both are highly competitive with excellent basic skills and athleticism, and both are very good goal kickers. This has been critical in each of their teams winning a Super Rugby AU Final, but neither of their games have been adequate at the international level.
They both face a common problem in the step up to international rugby, in that they played within relatively fixed game plans during the Super Rugby AU seasons. The Brumbies depended heavily on attacking from the lineout in the opponent’s half with the rolling maul and well-drilled routines, a strategy which won them Super Rugby AU in 2020, but which was found out by the Reds in 2021.
Their attack coach Rob Seib has acknowledged this, with a less predictable attack being worked on in 2022.
Aside from being a blistering opportunistic hole runner against less agile opponents, Lolesio offered little more than working within the Brumbies set attacking patterns and go-to plays like an inside ball to Tom Banks.
While the Reds had better invested in skills and a better culture of support play in 2020, O’Connor imposed a bit of rigidity of his own as acting captain and flyhalf, with his strategy of using his goal kicking to stay in touch and relying on the skills of the Reds backs to score a winning try at the end of the game.
It worked in Super Rugby AU where the Reds were probably the fittest team in the competition, but relying on coming from behind at the death against New Zealand Super Rugby teams, let alone internationals, proved wishful in 2021.
O’Connor also relied on go-to plays in Super Rugby AU, for example inside balls and a run up one side of the field to stretch the defence, putting the second playmaker into a position to make a break up the other side. They are good plays, but any good play can be overused.
In 2022, both fly-halves need to adopt a mindset of creative, heads-up play, where they constantly assess their opponents before and during matches, to identify vulnerabilities to exploit.
For example, they need to be targeting the flyhalf who can’t tackle or the big centre, winger or loose forward whose defensive read and agility isn’t up to scratch.
The coaches undoubtedly communicate these things to players, but the evidence would suggest that the fly halves themselves need to take more responsibility for learning to put themselves in a position to take their chances.
A specific challenge for Lolesio is when he is in a team like the Wallabies during the Bledisloe Cup, that doesn’t have its support play up to scratch yet, is to demand it from his teammates. Lolesio is in charge of the attack and he needs to have the courage to speak up, to back up the responsibility.
For O’Connor, the specific challenge is that he has been playing too deep, at times in the internationals getting smashed behind the gain line. The comment was made here on The Roar that Reds halfback Tate McDermott’s inconsistent pass, which McDermott has admitted needs work, might have reduced O’Connor’s confidence in attacking flat.
However, O’Connor kept playing too deep alongside Nic White who has a more consistent pass, so he needs to take responsibility for adjusting his habit.
O’Connor might also need to start taking the risk on McDermott’s pass and playing flatter this season, with other players in the vicinity to be on notice to mop up any loose ball.
Practice is vital but the only way McDermott is going to really get the belief in his skills, is if he uses them in the game, so his mates starting with O’Connor need to back him to do so.
I rate both Lolesio and O’Connor, and look forward to seeing them work hard to dispel the notion that the Wallabies can only succeed if Cooper is available to play at 10.