There was a time when it seemed like Australia could whistle up a fresh world class playmaker at will but those days are long gone and Wallabies flyhalf stocks are looking threadbare with little more than a year to go until the World Cup.
James O’Connor will be the third starter in five Tests this season against Argentina on Saturday (Sunday AEST), coming in for Quade Cooper after his fellow 30-something was injured again in last week’s win over the Pumas in their Rugby Championship opener.
The 32-year-old O’Connor has much to prove after returning from one of a string of injuries to put in a poor display against England in July as a second-half replacement for Australia’s designated flyhalf of the future, Noah Lolesio.
“We talked about him needing to sharpen up and he’s been doing that,” coach Dave Rennie said. “It’s really around acceleration and sharpening up his skill set. Attitude wise he’s been brilliant, he couldn’t have been more supportive. It’s great that he gets the opportunity on Saturday.
“Our thinking is he’s going to go through to the World Cup but only time will tell. I think he’s keen to get out there and show he’s got plenty of footy left in him.”
The versatile Reece Hodge will back up from the bench with no place even among the replacements for 22-year-old Lolesio, who started all three Tests against England last month.
“He’s disappointed,” said Rennie. “We’ve communicated areas where we want him to be better. But he’s a good kid, I reckon he’s going to be an excellent international 10 and he’s working hard on growing his game.”
It is a far cry from nine years ago when Rennie’s fellow New Zealander Robbie Deans had five credible candidates to play flyhalf against the British and Irish Lions and plumped for O’Connor.
O’Connor was banished from Australian rugby at the end of the 2013 season for off-field indiscretions just as Bernard Foley, who had not been in contention for the Lions series, emerged to make the position his own for five years.
Foley fell out of favour before the 2019 World Cup campaign and Michael Cheika chopped and changed his starting flyhalf before the humiliating quarter-final exit at the hands of England.
Rennie accepted that flyhalf was the position of most concern with the World Cup on the horizon, not to mention the more immediate challenges of Tests against world champions South Africa and New Zealand when the Wallabies head home.
“Ten is the skinniest [position],” he said. “We’ve got some good young kids coming through but not ready for this level yet. It’s certainly an area of focus, we need to develop our young 10s.”
Reports this week suggested that 32-year-old Foley, who now plays in Japan, would be recalled to the squad for the first time in three years.
“We haven’t made a decision around that,” said Rennie. “We’ll get home and we’ll pick a new squad for South Africa.”
Wallabies: Tom Wright, Jordan Petaia, Len Ikitau, Lalakai Foketi, Marika Koroibete, James O’Connor, Nic White, Rob Valetini, Fraser McReight, Jed Holloway, Darcy Swain, Rory Arnold, Taniela Tupou, Folau Fainga’a, James Slipper (captain). Reserves: Lachlan Lonergan, Matt Gibbon, Pone Fa’amausili, Nick Frost, Pete Samu, Tate McDermott, Irae Simone, Reece Hodge.