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A tale of two Wallabies selections

We move into the next block of games in the Rugby Championship this week, and whether they wanted a trial run of sudden-death rugby or not, the Wallabies’ remaining four games take on ‘must win’ elements.

The measure of success or failure in this year’s tournament will be determined in these games, maybe even just in the next two games against South Africa in Adelaide this weekend and Sydney to follow.

After the disappointment of San Juan, it’s clear that desperate times have called for desperate measures.

And two selections in this last week give us a bit of an insight into where Australia’s collective mindset sits.

If Foley is the answer, what on Earth are we asking?
The rumours started before the the second match in Argentina that Bernard Foley was suddenly in the frame for a recall for the first time since the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

And sure enough, when the new squad for the South Africa matches dropped, Foley was listed.

James O’Connor wasn’t though, in that great Australian tradition of rissoling the flyhalf when things go horribly wrong, and was last seen in a Brothers jersey running around in Brisbane on the weekend.

James O'Connor of the Wallabies after game two of the International Test Match series between the Australia Wallabies and England at Suncorp Stadium on July 09, 2022 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

James O’Connor (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Waratahs flyhalf Ben Donaldson was added to the national squad over the weekend, but Noah Lolesio looks to be in the box seat to start the match against the Springboks in Adelaide on Saturday. Whether he does or not might come down to – or perhaps further highlight – the aforementioned desperation.

Foley has been playing in Japan since 2019, and by my count has played fewer than 30 games in three seasons. There was a hamstring injury earlier this season and a high tackle red-card last season. And the 2019-20 season was abruptly cancelled when COVID hit.

And Foley confirmed on Monday from camp on the Gold Coast that attempts to play for Sydney University in recent weeks were somewhat thwarted by them earning a week off during the Shute Shield finals.

So it’s fair to say he’ll be fresh, having not played since a League One playoff at the end of May.

But I stand by the point I first made a few weeks ago when his name was first mentioned: Foley, as a player, can really only offer experience over Lolesio or the young talent headlined by Donaldson’s inclusion.

Foley isn’t a player that you can reshape your attack around, a la Quade Cooper. Call it x-factor, call it whatever you want, Foley just doesn’t have that.

All his inclusion does is highlight the developmental failings of Australian playmakers over the last decade or so.

And he was right to say it’s not for him to ponder why there is a missing generation of playmakers. Sure, his durability for so many years was a main reason why there are no 26 or 27-year-old NSW flyhalves still running around in Super Rugby, but that’s on Foley’s coaches more than anything.

It gave me reason to look back through the last NRC years at who came and went, and the list is as long as it is depressing.

Lolesio, Donaldson, and Will Harrison were all regulars in the final season in 2019, as was Andrew Deegan (coincidently playing 12 outside Donaldson in Randwick’s loss to Gordon on the weekend), and Isaac Lucas. Remember Mack Mason? Played for NSW Country, but now plies his trade in the States.

2018 saw Hamish Stewart and Jack McGregor come through. The year before was Duncan Paia’aua.

The early years? Sam Greene, Jake McIntyre, Jack Debreczeni, Luke Burton, Sam Windsor, Zack Holmes. Ben Volavola, even. Some got extended runs with states, some didn’t. Some have had multiple attempts. Debreczeni will have another crack in 2023 with the Brumbies.

This isn’t to say any of these guys should be Wallabies now, but can we honestly say they were given enough time in Super Rugby? Probably not, not all of them. Were they discarded too soon? Almost certainly.

“I see these guys as immensely talented,” Foley said yesterday.

“They’ve got the composure, they’ve got the mentality and probably the rugby IQ to run teams, they just need that experience and that time in the saddle to really understand their craft, master their craft, and be able to steer teams around.”

And he’s spot on. It was encouraging to see Donaldson come into the squad, but there’s maybe only 15 Tests and no more than 30 games including Super Rugby between now and the World Cup next year. We need to back these young guys now.

So it remains a bit puzzling how bringing in a soon-to-be 33-year-old does that.

Bernard Foley

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Wallabies now receiving the word of the Lord
If there was ever an overdue appointment to the Wallabies setup, it was Laurie Fisher becoming an assistant coach, albeit temporarily.

Matt Taylor stepping away from his defence role last week opened the door, and Dave Rennie was thrilled when Fisher accepted the invitation, even if it’s only for the remaining four games of the Rugby Championship.

And though his collisions and ruck focus at the Brumbies took on a more defensive focus and even some ‘A zone’ attack in recent years, my understanding is he’ll slot straight into the defence role vacated by Taylor.

It’s not too big a leap to see his knowledge around the ruck and the collision being used as well, but either way, he’s still forgotten more about defence than plenty will ever know.

‘Lord’ Laurie ticks so many boxes. The national set-up finally gets to tap into his technical experience and expertise, he finally gets to work at international level, Australia get an injection of fresh ideas and a new voice after a tough period, and Fisher won’t spend too much time away from home – the major reason why he’s more than content to be the hands-on senior assistant and background father at the Brumbies.

It also gives Rugby Australia a little more time to fill the role for the Spring tour and beyond, of which it’s entirely no surprise that Waratahs, Australia A, and former Under-20s coach Jason Gilmore has emerged as a likely candidate.

It capped off an interesting couple of days for the Wallabies. Let’s just hope the changes are the refresh this squad needs ahead of the next block of games.

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