Ten-year search for a Wallaby flyhalf
With news of Bernard Foley’s re-commitment to Rugby Australia, Wallabies fans can breathe a short sigh of relief.
He will, however, re-assess his position following next year’s showpiece tournament, which does nothing to solve the looming problem of a post-World Cup Wallaby exodus.
The lack of depth in the halves, and in particular at 10, is a serious issue. Just who will eventually replace Foley?
The pipeline of Australia’s future, the national under-20 side, reveals an alarming amount of players that have failed to kick on since 2011. Since that year, only one flyhalf picked at the under-20 level has gone on to wear the Wallabies number 10-jersey, Reece Hodge, for one test against Japan.
2008 was the last and most fruitful crop for the Wallabies – Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper were selected in the age grade side while James O’Connor and Matt Toomua were also picked but unable to get age dispensation.
Toomua then played the 2009 and 2010 Junior World Cup campaigns, while James O’Connor became the second youngest Wallaby ever in 2008. Toomua is the last Wallaby flyhalf to come through the junior representative side outside of Hodge’s anomaly. Bernard Foley came through the Sevens programme in 2009 and wasn’t an under-20 rep at all.
Of Toomua’s 24 test starts just six have been in the 10-jersey, so it is a stretch to say he is a true flyhalf, with inside centre being his calling at the professional level.
This astonishing run of ‘misses’ could be due to a myriad of reasons but undeniably highlights a systemic failure of Australian Rugby to produce a player, in possibly the most important position on the pitch, with the necessary skills to succeed at the highest level.
After a decade of failing to identify and develop a Wallaby flyhalf, it might just be time for everyone in Australian Rugby from the top-down to re-evaluate the position, re-value what skills are required and change the thinking. Whatever they think works, quite simply don’t.
The conservative, stifling nature that has crept into Australian coaching is failing to produce a game-changing 10, with an over-riding preference for ‘safety’ and textbook shovellers at the expense of finding a way for players with natural attacking instincts to flourish. If Damian McKenzie grew up in Australia, in all likelihood he would not be picked.
Either the right talent has not been identified in the first place or the development of the players has been hamstrung by the system. A balanced mix of both scenarios is a high probability.
The list of those who have donned the No.10 jersey for Australia at under-20 level in the last 10 years is comprehensive – Quade Cooper (2008), Kurtley Beale (2008/9), Matt Toomua (2009/10), Jono Lance (2010), Ben Volavola (2011), James Ambrosini (2011), Kyle Godwin (2012), UJ Seuteni (2012), Jack Debreczeni (2013), Reece Hodge (2013), Jake McIntyre (2013/14), David Horwitz (2014), Andrew Deegan (2015), James Dalgleish (2015), Mack Mason (2016), Nick Jooste (2016), Jordan Jackson-Hope (2016), Hamish Stewart (2017) and Jack McGregor (2017).
After 2010, the conversion rate even to Super Rugby has been frightening.
Volavola played just 19 Super Rugby games for Australian franchises before choosing to represent Fiji and becoming ineligible.
Kyle Godwin has played the most Super Rugby with 76 caps, but most as a midfielder and is now in Ireland with Connacht.
Reece Hodge has 42 caps for the Rebels, but mainly as a utility back. He is also seen as a makeshift 10 who can provide cover rather than as a genuine flyhalf.
Only Volavola (19 caps), Godwin (76 caps), Debreczeni (52 caps), Hodge (42 caps), McIntyre (24 caps), Horwitz (27 caps), Mason (2 caps), Jackson-Hope (7 caps), and Stewart (18 caps) have Super Rugby experience.
Debreczeni, the most experienced genuine flyhalf prospect, is now playing for Northland in the NPC, with no further contract with his former Melbourne-based side. With over 50 Super caps, that investment has been seemingly futile for Australian Rugby but he continues to impress on the Mitre 10 circuit, showing glimpses of what he could become.
A list of under-20 halfbacks is similar – Eddie Bredenhann, Matt Lucas, Nick Frisby, Jock Merriman, Ben Meehan, Waldo Wessels, Joe Powell, Angus Pulver, Scott Gale, James Tuttle and Harry Nucifora.
It is astounding then, that the frontrunner to succeed Will Genia as the next Wallabies halfback has emerged as Jake Gordon, a player with no rugby education in Australia’s rep pathway.
Gordon’s development has solely been in the Shute Shield, with roughly three years of club rugby before a breakout NRC season saw him force his way into the Waratahs. Without the advantage of receiving professional coaching for most of his development years, he already looks to be the second-best halfback in the country.
This long-term systemic failure has left Australian Rugby with an impending cliff ahead when the generation of players from the late noughties retires or move overseas for good. At the moment there are no other established flyhalf options with proven ability at Super Rugby level.
Hamish Stewart has been touted as the future but has been playing for the Reds too soon, the Brumbies have preferred Kiwi Wharenui Hawera in Christian Lealiifano’s absence and the Rebels on-and-then-off again relationship with Jack Debreczini continues, but looks to now be off with Quade moving south. The Waratahs have been grooming Mason for Foley’s departure.
After a decade of ill-thought out planning, investment, and development of flyhalves the odds of Stewart and Mason carrying the torch and reaching where they need to doesn’t seem likely. The Wallabies 2019 Rugby World Cup hopes look slim, and when you look past that it only looks worse, with testing times sure to be ahead.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass