Noah Lolesio’s smile was a welcome ray of sunshine in the early hours of Monday morning, as the loaned-out Brumbies playmaker produced a piece of individual magic during Toulon’s win over Racing 92.
After a 50-22, Lolesio played on quickly by taking a quick lineout and his cut-out pass ended up with a well-taken try.
The Brumbies playmaker, who wasn’t used by Eddie Jones throughout 2023, took up the opportunity to get some more match practice under his belt by taking up a short-term deal with the well-known French club.
He will return to Canberra later this year and quickly have another battle on his hands: dislodging Jack Debreczeni, whose maturity was on show last year in his return to Australian rugby.
After a destabilising year that culminated in the Wallabies’ worst result at a World Cup, everything from selection to the coaching structure of the national team is up in the air.
It means that Super Rugby form, which is now less than 100 days away from getting started, will be paramount.
Here are 10 players who could come back into the reckoning after falling down the pecking order in recent times.
A Wallaby at 22, Hanigan exploded onto the international landscape but is a much-improved player six years down the track.
That’s not surprising given the years he has had to hone his skills and grow into his body, but he still hasn’t been able to rid the tag of his early years as a professional rugby player where he was overused in his maiden season.
Injuries over the past 18 months haven’t helped, with Hanigan missing chunks of 2023 after returning from Japan a year earlier.
But there were real signs that Hanigan was starting to make his presence felt on the field last year when he returned late in the piece for the Waratahs.
Hanigan was also one of Australia A’s best during matches against Tonga and Portugal.
Standing at 196cm, Hanigan’s height and prowess at the lineout is now being matched by his physicality in contact and around the breakdown.
A second-rower with plenty about him, Swain’s discipline hurt his chances over the previous 18 months.
A yellow card against England was followed by an ugly cleanout incident against the All Blacks, which led to a lengthy ban.
But Swain’s physicality, skill set and demeanour is something that holds him in good stead in the international arena.
Like the Brodie Retallicks and Eben Etzebeths of the world, Swain doesn’t take a backward step. That’s an important ingredient in modern day rugby.
Now it’s about finding the balance between brawn and brains.
After being involved in spring tours in recent years, the 26-year-old at last had an off-season to work on his body in the gym.
After enjoying a breakout season in 2020 that led to him becoming a Wallaby in his first season, Wilson has yet to kick on like many hoped.
There’s still time.
A strong ball carrier and useful at the lineout, Wilson has silky skills and an appetite for work.
The issue is, we haven’t seen enough of Wilson’s ball skills. It’s part of the reason why he’s slipped behind others like Rob Valetini and, particularly, Langi Gleeson.
At the core, Wilson’s a baller. But too often in the past 24 months he’s been too much of a battering ram.
The Reds’ tight-five needs to help Wilson out, while the arrival of Les Kiss, a man known to enjoy the detail of the game, could well hope the back-rower’s game.
Wilson should be primed physically heading into 2024 after another off-season at home.
This time four years ago Lolesio hadn’t played a Super Rugby match. Now, he’s about to head into his fifth year as a professional, has 20 Tests behind him and won matches off the boot for the Wallabies too.
Although he wasn’t sighted for the Wallabies in 2023, Lolesio played his part in the Brumbies making the semi-final.
Now, it’s about taking his game to the next level.
Lolesio has to stand flatter, continue to run the ball to the line and command games.
The departure of Nic White to the Force could see the Brumbies play more off 10 – at least, that’s what Lolesio will be hoping.
A man who plays with edge, Salakaia-Loto is back after a season in the United Kingdom where he played alongside Courtney Lawes.
If he manages to implement some aspects of Lawes’ game in his own, Salakaia-Loto will be all the better for it.
Consistency, work-rate and body height into contact were some of the big forward’s areas of improvement heading to the Premiership. If he’s improved those areas, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
Those in Melbourne believe he’s in great shape.
At 27, with a World Cup under his belt in 2019, Salakaia-Loto should be coming into the prime of his career.
He will play in the second-row for the Rebels and asked to be the leader of the pack. If he succeeds, national selectors will be looking closely at him because the Wallabies need more players in the tight-five with edge.
Speaking of edge, look no further than Swinton.
The 26-year-old has had a bumpy few years with injuries and suspension hurting his chances of kicking on, but the Waratahs hardman has plenty more to give.
By the second half of this year, he was finding his form. Unfortunately, few Australians got to see it because he was finding his feet while playing for Australia A and the Barbarians.
Swinton is a Marcos Kremer-type figure. They aren’t exactly loved in Australia, but around the world the physicality he offers is something highly valued.
Finding the brains to match the brawn is what Swinton needs to consistently find in 2024.
After a year on the sidelines, Pasitoa has slipped off the radar. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was a part of the Australian Schoolboys side that beat New Zealand Schools as a 17-year-old.
Less than a year later he was in a dogfight with Lolesio and Bayley Kuenzle to wear the No.10 jersey for the Brumbies. Lolesio, of course, got first crack but Dan McKellar was very impressed by Pasitoa.
Now 21, Pasitoa has another fight on his hands with Max Burey and Ben Donaldson joining the Force this year.
Pasitoa is the most physical of the trio, but Burey has the inside running after finishing the year in the No.10 jersey.
Capable of playing inside centre as well, the former Nudgee product is one to keep an eye on even if he doesn’t start the year at fly-half.
After packing on the weight ahead of the 2023 season, Gamble struggled to have the same impact early in the season. Then a shoulder injury meant he missed the bulk of the season.
Now that Michael Hooper has moved on and signed with national sevens team, the New Zealand-born flanker has the chance to make the No.7 jersey his own.
Gamble has all the traits to make a strong impression. He is strong over the ball, has meaty legs and enough size in the shoulders to withstand the heavy contact of the modern game.
A hooker who burst onto the scene in 2022 and dramatically was called up to the Wallabies, the 21-year-old was another who was barely seen in 2023.
That was in part because of the depth at the Brumbies, but Pollard will be wanting to make a strong impression next year after a year where injuries also plagued the youngster.
Quick, strong over the ball and someone with an appetite for work rate, Pollard has the tools to succeed at hooker and become Australia’s own Dane Coles.
Campbell was unlikely to be a Jones favourite. Why? The Reds outside back is in the Hugo Keenan vein, which went against Jones’ philosophy of power athletes at the back.
The fullback glides and makes the hard look easy in a way Damian Martyn made batting look effortless.
That can be a positive but behind a beaten Reds pack and an inexperienced fly-half in 2023, it probably hurt the fullback. So did Jordan Petaia’s strong start to 2023.
But if Campbell can hit the ground running in 2024, don’t rule him out applying some pressure on Max Jorgensen and Tom Wright later in the year.