The Unlikely Solution to Australia's Flyhalf Problem - Green and Gold Rugby
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The Unlikely Solution to Australia’s Flyhalf Problem

The Unlikely Solution to Australia’s Flyhalf Problem

The current frontrunners for the Wallaby flyhalf jersey will be 29 (Matt Toomua), 30 (Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale), 31 (Quade Cooper), or 32 (Christian Lealiifano) years old by the time the Rugby World Cup rolls around in September. It’s very unlikely that any of these players will still be around in 2023 for the next World Cup, and it would be a damning sign if they were –most of these players were already becoming professional during the 3 World Cups ago!

These aren’t the only options, however. Clearly, the selectors prefer them (and the cover potentially provided by versatile 24-year-old Reece Hodge) to any of the others in Super Rugby such as Bryce Hegarty and Matt McGahan, but actually getting Super Rugby game time is not a requirement for selection. No, I’m not talking about Mack Mason again, but rather his teenage understudy. The understudy to the understudy.

Will Harrison looking to shift it.

Will Harrison making plays for the Rays.

Will Harrison has been showcasing his wares in Argentina this week as part of the World Rugby U20 Championship, and there is a growing sentiment that he may be the best number 10 in the world in the age-bracketed version of the game. The teenage sensation has not come from nowhere, having captained the Australian Schoolboys in 2017 immediately after returning from an injury-enforced break. This is all the more impressive when taking into account that Harrison’s school doesn’t even have a rugby team!

In fact, Harrison’s only opportunity to experience the game they play in heaven came through teenage club rugby, playing for the Clovelly Eagles near Randwick. Though he has been able to fill in the 12 and 15 jerseys at a pinch, he has taken a firm grasp of the steering wheel since joining the Junior Wallabies. His most notable accomplishment in this role was defeating the New Zealand U20s last month, but in less than two weeks he may have another feather to add to his cap.

Looking at this historic game, in which the Baby Blacks were kept scoreless despite having won the Oceanic tournament 4 out of 4 times and the international tournament 6 out of 11 times, the first thing that is apparent is his ability to kick for goal. The first half of this game is devoid of tries, but Harrison keeps the scoreboard pressure mounting on the Kiwis by slotting 4 from 4 attempts – often at long range.

Something that only becomes apparent on closer observation is Harrison’s willingness to get into the thick of things. This is unusual for the position, especially considering Harrison’s relatively small 177cm height and 84kg weight. He plays a significant part in Australia’s first minute try, chasing his own kick the length of the field and tackling its recipient. He doesn’t stop here, however. In fact, Harrison manages to charge down the clearing kick and then regather it. In the space of a few seconds, Harrison has gained the Junior Wallabies 90 metres of territory while retaining possession. This leads directly to a try only seconds later.

via Gfycat

Similar moments of game-changing excellences can be found in recent games against Italy and U20 6 Nations champions Ireland. In the below video from the game against Italy, Harrison creates a brilliant try out of nothing for Lachlan Lonergan, scything through the post-lineout defensive line with Beauden Barrett-like ease.

via Gfycat

Speaking of Beauden Barrett, Harrison channels the twice World Player of the Year in the subsequent game against Ireland and uses his speed and offloading ability to exploit a half-gap and put his winger away in the corner.

via Gfycat

Harrison is eventually rewarded with a try of his own, running a support line and breaking a tackle before winning the 40-metre race to the line.

via Gfycat

Harrison clearly has a lot to offer on attack. The concern, as with many U20 and schoolboy players, is that he won’t be able to measure up to the physicality of the sport once the age restrictions are lifted. There is no guarantee for this, but in my view it is time that Australia took a look at the way the modern game is being played before casting aside Harrison for being too small. Richie Mounga and Damian McKenzie are within 1” and 2kg on either side of Harrison, and the best team in the world has obviously determined that the speed and agility they offer is worth the trade-off in terms of size.

Importantly, these two players are often utilised by the All Blacks as bench impact players. Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has also shown a willingness to run a playmaker on the bench, testing Foley and Toomua there in 2018 and Cooper in 2017. These players are comparatively too old and slow to be seriously considered as impact players, but Harrison is faster and more agile than many wingers and could easily break open a game against tired forwards. The possibility of a Kiwi coach taking the reins in 2020 may also mean that smaller players, like Harrison, will get a better shot at international selection.

As well as being able to be used to break open the last quarter of the game, Harrison simply looks more like a modern flyhalf than any of the candidates the Wallabies have at the moment. This is unsurprising considering their age, but defenses in 2019 are too well-drilled for flyhalves to be a mere link in the chain. Nowadays, they need to present a genuine threat to the line in order to hold defenders in place and create opportunities for the players outside them. Harrison’s athleticism creates this risk for the opposing team. He has also been combining wonderfully with Isaac Lucas at fullback, and with many modern teams running the second playmaker at 15 rather than 12 this could be a partnership that works for the more senior Wallabies further down the track.

Additionally, Harrison has a world-class success rate kicking from the tee. From the 3 games mentioned, Harrison kicked 17 from 21 shots despite a number of them being quite difficult. Given Foley’s tendency to miss potentially match-winning kicks, bringing on a more consistent kicker at the right moment could be the difference.

Will Harrison

Will Harrison spreads it wide for the Aussie 20s.

In answer to the article’s headline, it is obviously too soon for Harrison to helm the Wallabies only 3 months from now. As stated earlier, there is no guarantee with any young player that their skills will transfer to the adult game. Conversely, Cheika will probably trial a good number of players in the Rugby Championship, and more still may be included in an extended training squad. In 2015, Cheika named 40 players for the Rugby Championship and if some of these players are injured or struggle with the intensity of test rugby, then this number could be increased. Considering the current flyhalf selection dilemma, Harrison’s name might just find its way into the long list of names at the fringes of selection.

If this still sounds too far-fetched, go back to the start of the article where I pointed out that Harrison’s school didn’t have a rugby team. This is the same school that Cheika attended, and Harrison also plays for the same club as the national coach. In fact, Harrison’s father (Mark) actually played alongside Cheika at Randwick. Cheika has attended a number of Schoolboy games that Harrison was captain for, so there is no doubt that the Wallabies coach is at well-aware of the young flyhalf.

The final factor that may play into these calculations is Harrison’s left-footed kicking ability. If you watch the full games on Kayo, you will see Harrison punishing his opponents for ill-discipline by chewing off huge chunks of territory with his left boot. Very few players in Wallaby contention have this capability at the world-class level. Cheika recognises it as a necessity, having notably changed the eligibility rules in 2015 to get left-footed kickers Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau into the squad.

I have written a similar article about 20-year-old Tate McDermott previously. Imagine the damage a bench containing these two exciting young blokes and Reece Hodge could do coming off the bench in the last 20 minutes against exhausted players twice their size. While Joe Powell is still the more likely scrumhalf replacement and there are already a number of flyhalves in the squad, all it takes is one injury, poor performance, or interpersonal spat with the coach for an opportunity to arise. A number of other U20 players have stood out including Isaac Lucas, Nick Frost, Fraser McReight, and Angus Bell, but none are standing out in positions the Wallabies are in such dire need of filling.

The Junior Wallabies are likely to face the Baby Blacks again in the finals of the U20 Championship. If they can keep the New Zealanders from getting their revenge for last month’s humiliation on the Gold Coast, and if the Rebels are unable to topple the Chiefs and secure a second Australian team’s place in the Super Rugby finals for the first time since 2015, then who can blame Cheika if he chooses to give a bolter a chance?

Author’s note: this article was written before round 3 of the U20 Championship early this morning

  • Braveheart81

    I think Harrison is really promising and expect him to pass Mason for the Waratahs sooner rather than later. I don’t expect Mason will really cement himself as a starting 10 in Super Rugby.

    It’s a fair bit too soon for Harrison but he is improving rapidly. He had a bit of a baptism of fire in the NRC last year but by the end of the tournament was holding his own to a reasonable degree.

    • Cameron Rivett

      Mason (and Harrison’s replacement and club teammate Ben Donaldson) are both more traditional passing flyhalves. Harrison is exciting because he brings his linebreaking threat to the game, so I agree with you. I also think the NRC was very good for Harrison, as many of the players at the U20 tournament have never played age-unrestricted rugby and Harrison has benefited from the exposure.

  • Pearcewreck

    Nice work Cameron.

    • Cameron Rivett

      Thanks Pearce!

  • Hugh_96

    Harrison looks good and pleased he is with the Tahs, however will be interested to see if Tom Wright plays some 10 at the brumbies next year, I like the look of him and he has some size.

    • Mica

      From what I have seen of him this year I would say that his passing is not good enough for a 10. Hope I am proven wrong.

  • Kiwi rugby lover

    Nice write up Cameron and definitely a player for the future. I personally don’t think he’s too young to be a bench option now and he’s certainly better than most that are likely to be there in a Cheika led team. If I was him I’d be praying for 2020 rather than 2019 so he wouldn’t have any of the current coaching team taint on him when he does get there. You can just see the conversations in the future”you were coached by Cheika hmmmmmmm”

    • Cameron Rivett

      Very cynical! But I’m not going to disagree.

  • Max Graham

    Why would Hodge coming off the bench cause damage? I won’t bother commenting on the rest of this, except to say, the kid has promise but let’s see how he goes in the coming years before we put the weight on the world on his shoulders. This rarely turns out well.

    • Cameron Rivett

      The inclusion of Hodge as the third bench back was mentioned only because his utility value makes it likely. If he’s in the starting team then that makes room for another hard runner like Tom Banks. As for the other thing, I’m generally in agreement but I think this can be managed by giving him plenty of rest time and only playing him off the bench. You know, like the All Blacks tend to do with young players.

      • Max Graham

        Okay, gotcha. But I still don’t get the Hodge love – maybe I’m missing something – I’ve never seen him do anything special at all. He’s got a big boot but he doesn’t use space well, isn’t great defensively and has little guile.

  • OnTheBurst

    Really good write up Cameron, thanks.

    Clearly Harrison has a huge amount of talent and promise. For mine he is far more exciting a prospect than Mason, he is faster, has a better boot and has an as good if not better passing game.

    Ensuring he has the right environment to develop at the Tahs will be critical. I can’t see Mason as a long-term option at the Tahs, and who knows maybe he won’t hang around anyway, having had a year to forget.

    More importantly for Harrison will be who his mentors are at the Tahs. With Foley moving on, you’d think the Tahs would be after a 10 with experience that could help foster and mentor Harrison off the bench (and I mean proper minutes off the bench – Mason’s lack of game time this year has been a total disgrace… how anyone is supposed to develop without game time is beyond me).

    A L’fano type character would be great to attract to the Tahs in 2020 but I think his blood is too equine. The prodigal son Bryce Hegarty another good ‘un who has overachieved this year for the Reds, but will be locked in by QLD if they have any sense. The off season will be interesting to watch on recruitment for the Tahs.

    Finally – why not a floating role for Bernie Larkham to be developing 10s across the country. Can’t think of anyone better.

    • Cameron Rivett

      I agree with you very strongly, flyhalves usually require an experienced mentor to reach their potential. The Waratahs have Foley and Beale,but it remains to be seen what they will be doing in 1 or 2 years and how quickly Harrison will rise through the ranks. Larkham is the obvious mentor but his role is also currently contentious, I expect he’ll be back in the core Wallabies coaching setup once Cheika gets the boot.

      https://www.rugbypass.com/news/succession-planning-at-10-the-downfall-for-the-blues

      • Who?

        I don’t know that Beale and Foley are the guys we want coaching our next generation… They don’t come across as analysts and students of the game, in the way that Kafer and Larkham appear to be. But ideally, I’d really hope that, with the Randwick connection, guys like Mark Ella are being tapped to give the odd word here and there. The same way that he was mentored by the legendary Cyril Towers.

      • Patrick

        I would rather he move to another State and get mentored by anyone else, personally.

  • Who?

    Thanks Cameron – great read only a day or so after the headline news up here about Sam Walker (I think it was Sam, son of former Bronco Ben Walker) from Ipswich Grammar signing a six figure two year contract at the age of 16 with the Roosters to be coached by Trent Robinson. The reporting up here held that RA was very interested in retaining him in the game (even though his roots are strongly league, and he still plays club league).
    .
    Also interesting to see Gus Gould coming out to say that, with Folau gone, RA’s cashed up (clearly he’s not thinking straight!), and so the NRL should be doing their best to up the contract value of Kalyn Ponga, to stop him from leaving.
    .
    So it’s great to see Rugby-developed talent ripping it up.
    .
    And how great to see a kid coming through clubland, without needing to spend a fortune on a ‘Rugby’ school, without being scouted and put on a scholarship. Playing NRC, finding the chance to go up against real quality players rather than hiding in squads (as has been a regular complaint about squad players for a few years now). It’s the sort of story that’s good for clubs and the wider Rugby community.

    • Cameron Rivett

      There were strong efforts to get Harrison to play League considering that he went to a League school, and if not for teenage club rugby we would have lost him like Sam Walker! Ponga is also an obvious choice, but last I read I thought he was more interested in playing for NZ?

      • Who?

        I don’t know much about Ponga – Gould mentioned RA, the NZRU and also the FRU.
        .
        But congratulations and well done to Harrison’s club. I don’t want clubs to be responsible for running elite level comps, I want them to be families who make players feel completely at home, who develop a passion for the game and a connection that helps keep kids like Will in the game. Who are pathways to bigger opportunities like the NRC, which can be a showcase for Super teams recruiting.
        It’s a great story.

  • Andy

    Great article Cameron. This kid really looks good. Not afraid to take the line on at all which is good to see. And he has a beautiful kicking technique. Doesn’t look manufactured like all our current 10’s.

    Reesjan Pasitoa Is another up and coming 10. Watched him play for the schoolboys last year and he carved Ireland and Scotland’s U19’s team. Believe he is also signed up for the Brumbies next season so watch this space

    • Cameron Rivett

      Thanks Andy! There are a few junior 10s around, but as far as I can tell Harrison is the most “modern” using the criteria I described in my article (which is basically comparing them to NZ’s 3 main flyhalves) and thus the most realistic prospect. I haven’t seen anything of Pasitoa though, so I’ll have to keep an eye out!

  • Cameron Rivett

    Update: Harrison was knocked out in the 62nd minute of the England game probably by a fellow tackler (you can see him lying flat on his face unmoving moments before England’s try) and will almost certainly not feature in the upcoming Australia v Argentina game due to concussion protocols.

    He did set up a good try in the first half in a very similar manner to my third video, though he also dropped a high ball.

    Also New Zealand was beaten by South Africa, so that revenge junior Bledisloe instalment isn’t going to happen.

  • AllyOz

    I think it would be an interesting prospect to take a younger fly-half on the RWC tour. The only other thing to consider would be that within the established 10’s that we do already have different styles of players anyway – Cooper brings a different style than Leilifano or Foley. Certainly he is no younger than Tim Horan or Jason Little and they were able to perform at the higher level in 1991 RWC and be a part of the Wallabies for a decade.

  • Huw Tindall

    Super stuff Cameron! I’ve been watching the U20 games and the future looks bright. Harrison plays above his weight for sure. Bit like Sean McMahon always seemed to mix it with the really big lads.

    On the RWC front I’d keep Harrison as far from it as I could. Australian rugby is littered with ‘next big thing’ stories. I want to see him do a full NRC season. Another step up. If he has already had a decent time out with injury he needs the body to harden up with game time not fitness training and carrying the Wallaby mascot.

    • Cameron Rivett

      I am in two minds about this. Usually I agree, but some players are just ready. Give him a chance off the bench against Samoa or Argentina and if he has the stuff, bring him to Japan. Those games are in Australia and don’t compete with the NRC anyway, AFAIK it doesn’t start until after the club season finishes in late August/early September.

      • Huw Tindall

        You wouldn’t want the Wallabies using the TRC and Samoa game to sort our QC vs Foley vs CLL first? Limited prep before the RWC so need to make the most of it. Harrison won’t have been in any of the camps or anything so will be really far behind on all the structures and play. Would be a massive challenge to come in at this late stage no matter how talented he is.

        • Cameron Rivett

          I am only proposing Harrison off the bench so the starting flyhalf debate can still occur. There will already have been more added to that debate by the time Argentina and Samoa roll around anyway due to the NZ and RSA games so it’s hard to predict exactly how it will play out, and it’s possible that injury could play a part as well.

        • Who?

          You’re completely right, but I wonder if the reason Cheika’s seen him is partially because he used Harrison’s team as one of the test cases for his new attacking scheme?
          I agree – don’t burn him too young – but I wonder.

  • juswal

    Thanks for gathering the clips, Cameron. It’s great watching the Junior Wallabies at the moment. In every clip, every bloke is switched on, pouring in to support, scrambling to cover ground, reforming the line. When there’s a chargedown or breakout there is no pause while they react; they’re all after it like terriers.

    • Cameron Rivett

      The game is a lot looser and less structured than first class play so there’s rarely a chance to settle in. On the other hand, the Australian team seems to hold off on making any subs until more than an hour into the game so I have to give credit to their fitness and alertness.

  • Notremos

    Correction He played for the Coogee Seahorses and the the Randwick Myrtle Greens

    • Cameron Rivett

      He played for both the Clovelly Eagles and the Coogee Seahorses.

      • Notremos

        When did he play for the Eagles. His dad was president of the
        Seahorses.

        • Cameron Rivett

          You are correct, I misinterpreted a SMH article about him and Ben Donaldson (who comes from the Eagles). I will seek to amend the article. Thank you for the clarification!

        • Cameron Rivett

          Actually Nostremos, I have been in contact with someone closer to Will than I and I would like to clarify the situation further.
          Will played for Coogee while his dad was President of the Seahorses and also Will’s coach. Then the Coogee team folded at the end of the U12s and Will came across to the Clovelly Eagles in U13. This was apparently a bit awkward for Will’s father because there was a second Coogee team that didn’t fold but Will decided to move to Clovelly because he had more friends on that team.
          So as I originally said, Harrison has played for both Clovelly and Coogee.

  • From NooZealand

    Both are excellent players (the Snowman and Harrison), and would love to see them playing for the Wallabies, but I think they are too young. One thing is to want to win games the other is the duty to look after our young. Because they are good, they will be targeted.

  • Ben Fox

    Any where other than NSW!

  • Brumby Runner

    I see it pretty much the same as Huw Tindall. There have been many ‘next big things’ in the No 10 spot come through in recent years; Andrew Deegan, Jake McIntyre, Stewart, Jooste, Mack Mason. All have had severe awakenings when they’ve reached Super level. I will not be convinced that Will Harrison is any different until I see him come through a couple of seasons at club level and NRC. His first go at NRC this year was pretty woeful.

    Deegan at least is now showing more ability after a couple of years with the Western Force and probably would be the front runner in that group of players.

    To talk about Harrison as a potential player at this year’s RWC is just bonkers. He may get there by 2023 but will have a lot to prove in the meantime.

  • John Tynan

    How apparantly skilful (based on the highlight reel, admittedly) are the U20’s compared to their “professional” counterparts – do we coach it out of them with too much structure or do we lose these guys to competitors? Or is the investment paying off from Mick the Kick?

    • Cameron Rivett

      Of the two I personally think we coach it out of them, and especially with flyhalves tend to select “enablers” who can pass but don’t bring much physicality to the game.

  • Very true about our fly-halves being too old. Win, lose or draw they won’t be there come the 2023 World Cup. Nonetheless, I think LLF has shown he has the sttled maturity we need. He and Joe Powell are cooking along nicely.

  • On a separate note, expect there should be some movement in the coaches box near year. Only two seem certain – Reds and Brumbies. Unless Australia win the World Cup then good bye to Mr. Cheika albeit he could end up back at the Warathas.

    Be great to see Ewen McKenzie back but he has fallen ‘off the planet’since being shafted by the ARU.

Wallabies

Somehow still a Wallabies fan. Enjoys brainstorming ideas on how to fix Australian rugby. Waratahs/North Sydney/Country Eagles supporter. Ex-Kiwi with just a touch of love left for the Highlanders and Otago.

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