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By The Roar
Fan article originally published on The Roar's sports opinion website. Submit your own Rugby article to The Roar for potential publication on Rugby.com.au/Wallabies
I’m hoping against all hope Will Genia has been pacing his output this Super Rugby season.
Genia is absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, the most important Wallabies player for the Lions’ series. He’s the only one who can submit a “Remember when Will Genia’s greatness elevated an average Wallabies to a Lions Series win in 2013?”-type performance.
Of course the Wallabies need to obtain some level of parity in the forward exchanges, and I will be the first person to praise them for success in that department if they can – that’s like saying a good steak needs rest before eating. Duh.
In terms of breaking the game open, the Wallabies haven’t had a consistent source of inspiration in recent years as I alluded to last week. I pointed to Scott Higginbotham as a possible source, but now he’s out and he’ll play only a small part in proceedings if he plays at all.
That leaves Will Genia as the man.
This year hasn’t seen Genia launch into his work with the same level of consistent brilliance as previous years. Putting that in context it’s perhaps easier to see why.
Genia has only returned to the Reds starting line-up in Round 6 – a 66-minute hit out against the Bulls – this year after a long layoff. A knee reconstruction can return players to the game at a lower level than before such a devastating injury.
While this is becoming the case less often now medicine is so advanced and rehabilitation is so focused, but the damage done and long rehabilitation process are factors worth taking into account.
After returning Genia warmed up quickly, but he has had some down patches. Against the Sharks at Suncorp on March 10 he was scintillating, before he went to South Africa and almost didn’t turn up. He was slow and unimaginative; a critical factor in a poor Reds haul of points.
Coming back to Australia seemed to do him the world of good.
Against the Rebels he did his job to a good standard in the first half, and in the second half he was key to the Reds suddenly moving the Rebels pack around and finding holes in the first few channels of defence.
He upped his game and his team clearly benefited.
Suddenly Genia was shifting the ball from the ruck quickly – often to wider players than most halfbacks reach – picking the right man to run into the least prepared defender. He was running the ball again, which is crucial as he’s about the best in the world at sniffing around the rucks.
Genia stresses defences like no other halfback, and it was his darting that suddenly had confident Rebels forwards backpedalling, turning their outside shoulder and generally providing more running room.
His passing in tight while running was selective and brilliant. There was one slightly forward pass that would have been a try but for a few degrees – it was incredible he even got that one away.
The fourth Reds try came not because of the Reds maul taking over or Cooper’s backline ripping things apart; it was Genia moving runners around the ruck over and over until he scooped it himself, froze the line and gave an excellent wide ball to Ben Lucas who scored untouched.
The commentary noticed the widest defender turned inward to monitor the progress of James Slipper and wondered aloud why he should do such a thing. I think that missed the main truth: Will Genia, ball in hand, is a serious threat and will inevitably draw the attention of an extra man on the line.
The Wallabies are going to need him at that level for the entire Lions Series to get the job done.
Another factor to consider is the man playing outside Genia.
At this point it’s fairly clear James O’Connor will be picked as the Wallabies fly-half for the first Test – journalists are so assured of that fact they’re now trying to pretend O’Connor is the best man for the job in a weird kind of groupthink self-fulfilling prophecy.
In watching the Reds v Rebels match I was trying to work out how O’Connor is best deployed in that role.
To start with, he actually spent almost as much time at the back fielding kicks and defending behind the line as Cooper does. Secondly, in attack, he has a Kurtley Beale-like tendency to stray sideways and narrow the attacking space as well as passing late, usually only after he’s exhausted avenues to make his own break.
Where he was most effective was after a forward or, crucially, Nick Phipps had made a half break or bent the defence around the corner of the ruck.
That is where O’Connor is going to need Genia to not just control the tempo of the attack himself but also make some of the running.
Genia is going to find more creases in the defence around the ruck than Phipps can. And the bulkier forwards aren’t going to break the line cleanly too often against the bigger Lions.
It is the forwards half breaks and Genia bursts where O’Connor is going to come into his own – following the semi-broken play and on the next phase using his underrated strength and speed to break the defence wider open and then give offloads and short passes from there.
That is the strength of O’Connor’s game, and he’s going to need Genia to help get him into those spots.
The Wallabies that play the Lions are going to be much less about set plays and using the width to attack and more about the continuous pressure around the first few channels of the defence, using O’Connor to prise small cracks open until the flood comes.
Genia must be at a world-best level to allow the Wallabies forwards and O’Connor room to operate effectively in that vital way.
Wallabies fans need to hope the up-and-down season Genia has logged so far is because he’s partly aware of and planning for the momentous task ahead.
*Disclaimer - Views expressed within this story are not necessarily the views of the ARU or rugby.com.au