SAINT ETIENNE – It was an off-the-cuff, light-heated comment at the end of the weekend’s press conference, but Neal Hatley’s interjection at the end shouldn’t be dismissed.
“He can muscle up at seven if we need,” Hatley, the Wallabies forwards coach, told reporters, with a giant grin on his face.
That man he’s talking about is Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, who came from the clouds to earn a debut at the Stade de France against Les Bleus in the final Test before the World Cup gets underway this weekend.
Just four weeks ago, Wallabies coach Eddie Jones remarked about a similar thing.
Asked what he liked about Fines-Leleiwasa after being one of the genuine bolters in Jones’ World Cup squad, the Wallabies coach pointed to one of the less talked about qualities of the halfback.
“We feel that particularly the way the game’s going, having a halfback who can defend like a back-rower at the end of the game is a particular advantage,” Jones said at his World Cup squad unveiling.
Just like his path to the top, Fines-Leleiwasa isn’t your typical halfback.
Lightning quick over 20 metres, the dreadlocked halfback is explosive and strong.
Unlike most of Australia’s halfbacks, his muscles are the same as most of the openside flankers in the country.
With inside backs targeted in defence by hulking centres like Jonathan Danty, Andre Esterhuizen, Bundee Aki and Manu Tuilagi for gain line dominance, having someone who can defend like a back-rower can’t be understated.
Jones, having witnessed other halfbacks in Australia get pushed away, will have noticed that Fines-Leleiwasa isn’t someone who gets shrugged away. Someone who doesn’t go away without a fight.
If he did, he wouldn’t have become Wallaby 971.
Indeed, it took the Queensland-born halfback until he was 24 to make his Super Rugby debut.
Before then, Fines-Leleiwasa had gone to Canberra looking for a chance, before then Western Force coach Tim Sampson, another Queensland product, signed him to play in the club’s move into the Global Rapid Rugby venture.
Eventually, Fines Leleiwasa returned to Canberra.
Stuck behind others like Joe Powell and Ryan Lonergan and later Nic White, opportunities were limited. It forced him to get creative, featuring on the wing and taking chances when they came.
But one moment in 2020 put Fines-Leleiwasa on the radar. It was sign of things to come.
With the Waratahs leading at the Olympic Stadium in Super Rugby AU, the replacement halfback bounced out from the base of the ruck, roamed across the field and then pinned the ears back, exploding through the tackle of Lachie Swinton and Will Harris to score the match-winning try.
It was the moment that put him on the rugby map.
That ability to snipe, attract defenders and lift the tempo of the game is something that has caught Jones’ eye.
Had he been a part of a successful Force side this year with a forward pack to match most others, Fines-Leleiwasa would have been one of the most talked about halfbacks in the competition.
His strong second-half performance against Tonga for Australia A off the bench only reinforced that opinion, as he came off the bench and immediately helped transform the team.
That ability to seize the moment was on display during his sprightly cameo against the host nation in Paris.
After coming on late for another livewire in Tate McDermott, Fines-Leleiwasa’s clever and pinpoint box kick deep inside France’s half allowed Suliasi Vunivalu to score his first Test try.
“I saw the big fella sprinting through, so I thought the height battle would get him over the line,” Fines-Leleiwasa said.
“It worked out well. It’s obviously something we’ve been working on. We’ve got world-class wingers, as you’ve seen from the weekend with Suli and Mark [Nawaqanitawase]. It just worked out well. I was stoked to be part of it.”
The 27-year-old admitted the past four weeks had been a whirlwind, having gone from team meetings in Perth ahead of the Force’s tour of South Africa to packing his bags for a possible 10-week tour of France.
“To be honest, the last few weeks hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said.
“On the weekend it was a huge privilege to put on the jersey. Despite the result, I enjoyed it. I’m stoked to be here.
“The atmosphere was amazing, I don’t think it will get much better than that. It was a perfect little step up and something I enjoyed. I loved being out there. I didn’t want it to end to be honest. It was good fun.”
Fines-Leleiwasa was presented his debut jersey by former World Cup-winner George Gregan, who also happened to be the halfback he idolised growing up a child.
“When I started watching rugby, ‘Greegs’ was the No.9 for Australia,” Fines-Leleiwasa said.
“Growing up and loving rugby, it’s someone who I idolised. To have him in the other week was a special moment.
“I had met him once before but nothing to that extent. It was a pretty special night and that week leading in to get to meet someone you’ve grown up loving.”
While it’s hard to imagine Fines-Leleiwasa starting ahead of either McDermott or veteran Nic White, his pace and ability to cover multiple positions has him as a perfect figure to bring off the bench in Jones’ young revolution.
“I think we’re all different,” Fines-Leleiwasa said.
“I build my game around speed at the ruck, physicality and I like getting in to do the dirty work. We’ve all definitely got different game sets.
“Whatever it is for the coaching staff. If it’s helping out at wing on halfback, I’m happy to do a job. We’ve been down in a few numbers so mixing in where I can, whether I’m at nine or filling in a number on the wing. It’s always good fun out there.”
Getting down and dirty seems to suit Jones to a tee.
For Fines-Leleiwasa, he could play a far greater role in this year’s World Cup than many expected. But it’s not without reason.