It’s become increasingly harder to ignore the Carter Gordon hype. And even better, the hype has substance to it.
And better again, he’s living and playing up to it, which has only added to the volume, regularity, and meaning of this hype as the year has gone on. Just when you thought his performance might flatten out, he throws a mouth-watering pass, or lays a hit plenty of backrowers could learn from.
Like most rugby fans this season, and rugby fans on both sides of the Super Rugby Pacific ditch for that matter, I’ve absolutely loved watching him play in 2023. It almost feels like cliché, but he has genuinely got better with every outing. And I’ve got no doubt that the Melbourne Rebels have remained in finals theories for a lot longer than their record would normally allow in a black and white world because of his continually growing form line.
Anyone who’s watched rugby at any level for long enough would have heard the ultimate measure of a new, often younger player who looks really, really good:
“He just has time with the ball.”
Gordon has time, and it’s captivating. When you watch him with the ball, you can see that time. The time to run. The time to pass. The time to kick long, and the time to not kick long, but actually run again.
And then there’s the timing. His left-to-right double cut-out to put Lachie Anderson away in the corner against the Brumbies two weekends ago was superb. But his short pass for Reece Hodge against the Waratahs on Saturday night might have been better. Because the sell job started way before he took that ball to the line in the ninth minute.
The short pass worked because his long pass the week before made the Tahs defence study him that little bit longer last week. And they would’ve just run though their slide defence for a few minutes longer, just to be sure. So when he ran to the line on Saturday night, they knew what was coming: they marked up, they communicated well, and their slide on the try line was effective.
Right up until the point he played short instead. Mark Nawaqanitawase was beaten by timing, pure and simple.
Not just timing with the ball though. How long is his defensive highlights clip from this season now? Add the bellringer on Joey Walton in the last quarter on Saturday night.
Iain Payten wrote a fantastic profile on Gordon in the Sydney Morning Herald last week, in which among some wonderful insight from Rebels assistant coach Tim Sampson on the work they’ve put into Gordon, was this gem:
“Defending in the front line, Gordon has made 105 tackles at 89 per cent effectiveness; 30 more than the next No.10 in the competition.”
It’s jumped to 90 per cent effectiveness after his seven-from-seven tackling in Sydney on the weekend.
He gets knocked over, but he doesn’t miss many. In attack, he gets knocked down, but gets up again. With apologies to Chumbawumba, you’re never going to keep him down.
But my Carter Gordon experience this season has been interesting, not just because of what he’s done, but because of something I wrote – back in March.
After the Rebels beat the Waratahs in Melbourne back in Round 3, their first win of the year after two bonus-point losses, I attempted to quell the hype rapidly boiling over at the time.
At the time I made the comment, and in the context of the typical Australian overreaction to “the next young thing”, I stood by it. Still do now, in fact. At the time I wrote it, he was much further down the order than he definitely is now, and still had a way to go.
The comment got a bit of attention at the time, both agreement and disagreement, and has even come back to me a couple of times since, as the Gordon drum-beating got louder.
But there’s just no argument he’s the form Australian flyhalf right now, with a few weeks to run before the finals. He has to feature very well in ‘form flyhalf in the competition’ conversations currently as well.
And it’s kind of hard not to think about him in a Wallabies jersey, especially since he impressed everyone at Eddie Jones’ first training camp up on the Gold Coast last month. It’s hard to see how he won’t play Test rugby at some point this year, even being a Rugby World Cup year.
Quade Cooper’s return to action in Hanazono Kintetsu Liners’ League One promotion battle success would have pleased Jones to no end, but Gordon’s form creates a really interesting game plan development perspective.
And I hate to point out the likeness, never mind actually make the comparison, but if Jones really does want Cooper to be his key cog in the Wallabies attack this season, then Gordon is very comfortably and very obviously the closest of any of the young 10s to Cooper in terms of playing style.
Gordon’s performances have dragged Noah Lolesio and Ben Donaldson to arguably their best performances in head-to-head contests in consecutive weeks, but the Brumby and Waratah aren’t throwing that pass to Lachie Anderson last week.
They’re doing a lot of things right for their side currently and Lolesio was very good again in the Brumbies’ win over the Highlanders on Sunday, but he and Donaldson are very different players to Carter Gordon.
I also wonder if Jones has learned from his Marcus Smith experience? The harder he tried to fit Smith into his desperate England game plan by the end, the more uncomfortable Smith looked and worse the situation got.
Is Eddie game to go back to that well again? Does a fit again master and a willing, similarly aesthetic apprentice give him the confidence he never quite had in the Harlequin flyhalf? I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.
Time, and timing, is everything in sport.
Gordon plays with plenty of the former, and his arrival on the scene right when other young flyhalves were starting to waver as Wallabies fans were starting to grow nervous about a tournament in France this year is a perfect example of the latter.
There may be no better time to see how his game translates at international level. But does Eddie Jones agree?
And will he stake his chairman-endorsed reputation as a winner on that point?