Super AU opener the best of Australian rugby’s old and new


After all that has happened in Australian rugby over the past 18 months, it seems fitting that a new competition will begin with the nation’s oldest rugby rivalry – in a game that promotes the best of its ‘generation next’.

Friday night’s Super Rugby AU opener between Queensland Reds and NSW Waratahs probably doesn’t have a teamsheet boasting the big names rugby fans were accustomed to during the 1990s and 2000s.

There is no Tim Horan or John Eales; no David Campese or Matt Burke; no Toutai Kefu or Ben Tune; no Phil Waugh or Nathan Grey; no … well let’s just say the list goes on.

With Wednesday’s team announcements, what this Friday’s clash does however present is a group of players Australian rugby has pinned its hopes to for the long term; a bunch of youngsters some of whom continue to live at home, but whom supporters hope they will one day recall as household names.

This is not to overlook the Brumbies, Rebels or Force. There are players in each squad who will play vital roles in Dave Rennie’s Wallabies rebrand in the years to come. Three Brumbies, for instance, could lay claim to as many seven starters if an Australia team was picked tomorrow.

Rebels Matt To’omua, Isi Naisarani, Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete will also be among the first names of Dave Rennie’s maiden Wallabies squad — if one is indeed formally selected this year — though the latter’s future is currently the subject of NRL speculation.

Friday night’s game may be looking a little further ahead in terms of its Wallabies ramifications, though several players could also find themselves on the fast-track in the short term.

Earlier this year at the Waratahs, Will Harrison, Mark Nawaqanitawase and Angus Bell each made their debuts and no-one looked out of place at Super Rugby level, while Will Harris and Joey Walton were on Wednesday named to do the same.

Outside of Michael Hooper and Rob Simmons, this Waratahs side is as green as it gets, one that’s had to grow up ahead of schedule. It has an average age of just 23.6 years.

“There’s been a lot of expectation around that group of young men, and I guess the last two or three cohorts through the Under 20s and the Australian secondary schools [teams] have had a bit of success,” Waratahs coach Penney said of his talented, but raw, group on Wednesday. “So there’s a big expectation, and so there should be, that a lot of them will come through and the next World Cup will hopefully be a really happy place for Australian rugby with that group of [men]; in two or three years making the guts of the World Cup squad down the track. So the expectation’s been on them.

“The ones that are in our environment have really embraced all the challenges that have been laid before them and I can’t speak highly enough [of them]. A lot of credit has to go to their parents and how they’ve been brought up and raised, the club coaches they’ve had on the way through, and the representative coaches at Australian level or state level on the way through.

“The boys in the Waratahs are genuinely committed, not only do they have the talent but they have the passion and the heart for what they’re trying to achieve, and it’s just lovely thing to see.”

“Obviously now we need to nurture them through this big leap into Super Rugby but hopefully at the backend of this we’re going to have a strong group to really launch ourselves from. That’s the idea.”

Reds coach Brad Thorn has meanwhile been overhauling his squad for the past three years, only to have two of his brightest young talents and an established Wallabies lock walk out the door in May. It was another ugly episode the game didn’t need, but any criticism should be reserved for the Reds trio themselves after 189 of their Australian colleagues had been prepared to help the game in its hour of need.

The Reds, like the Waratahs, retain a couple of experienced performers in James O’Connor, Bryce Hegarty and Taniela Tupou, but Thorn has largely invested in youth since the day he arrived. Earlier in the year, it was just starting to pay off.

Back-rower Harry Wilson had established himself as one of the standout players in Super Rugby, catching the eye of Crusaders boss Scott Robertson along the way, while Liam Wright was growing as a captain and Hunter Paisami had come from nowhere to replace another boom prospect, Jordan Petaia, in the centres.

Meanwhile lurking on the bench was perhaps Michael Hooper’s long-term heir apparent at No. 7 Fraser McReight. The former Australia Under 20s captain is languishing on the bench no more, his inclusion dropping the Reds average age to 23.2 years.

“It’s been mixing and matching throughout the training sessions and to see Fraser and Liam work together, I think it’s a really good combo,” Thorn said of McReight. “Obviously we’ve got Angus Scott-Young there as well, it’s very competitive around that 6 and 8 spot with Harry Wilson, so it’s just healthy.

“But it’s exciting, Fraser’s been coming through, I had him in Under 20s and he had a few touches last year and he was getting opportunities [earlier] this year and he’ll be excited about a start.

“Obviously Liam’s been growing as a player and a leader, so I’m pleased where those guys are heading.”

And then there is the fact that this rivalry goes back 138 years to 1892.

“It’s Friday night, traditional rivals, the Waratahs, the stadium has been opened up to 25,000 [people] now; gee it would be great to get some good numbers there,” Thorn said. “And we feel a responsibility to hopefully play some really good rugby, both sides, and put a good display on for rugby in Australia.”

That good display is exactly what the game needs. There’s no hiding from the fact that Rugby Australia is still without a television deal for next season, the game for too long associated with scrum resets and time wasting when the modern attention span is shorter than ever.

Broadcasters are no longer prepared to pay for sub-standard content, something Rugby Australia has attempted to improve by introducing some trials laws for Super Rugby AU.

And, but for a 2015 season in which Michael Cheika worked some short-term magic, the Wallabies have been regarded as little more than a bunch of losers.

That needs to change.

“It’s a trial every week, or there is two of them basically going on every week, which is outstanding,” Penney said of the format for Super Rugby AU. “If you’ve watched over the ditch, they’ve had three weeks of it now, that’s the standards we’ve got to set; we’ve got to make people fall in rugby again here and make it a game that people want to spend some time being involved with.

“So we have a massive responsibility to the greater game here…and every week there’s going to be two trials for the national team which will be of a lot of interest to a lot of people given post-World Cup [departures], there could be some new faces. And the way Dave Rennie’s coming in and looking to build into this next World Cup, it’s going to be interesting to see how it unfolds.”

From Israel Folau to Raelene Castle, Cheika’s acrimonious exit to the wayward Reds trio, Australian rugby can survive little further controversy when it already finds itself on financial life support.

A memorable match in its oldest fixture, one that showcases some potential future Wallabies, seems like a good place for Australian rugby to start its climb back from near complete sporting obscurity.

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