Bernard Foley would like to think he hasn’t been cruising as the Wallabies' only specialist no. 10 but he has welcomed the return of Matt Toomua as a positive for his form and the team.
Toomua signed a new deal with Rugby Australia and the Melbourne Rebels last week before making a surprise start at fly-half for the “Cheika’s Choice” team in the Wallabies trial at Leichhardt Oval.
The 28-year-old is set to return to the Wallabies squad for the opening Bledisloe Cup game next week; his first Test appearance since 2016.
Toomua has spent the last two years playing for Leicester in the English Premiership - and will return to play one more season - but made the decision to re-sign in Australia to play for the Wallabies again, and push for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The return of Toomua provides much-needed depth in the Aussie playmaking ranks, with centre Kurtley Beale having been Foley’s back-up in the past year and Reece Hodge having even played a Test at no. 10. Quade Cooper’s decision to stay in Queensland to play club rugby has him out of the picture, too.
The presence of 33-Test playmaker Toomua will bring intra-squad heat on Foley to hold his spot but the incumbent no. 10 says he isn’t looking at it that way.
“I don’t feel added pressure, I just think it is great that we have that extra depth and competition throughout our squad,” Foley said.
“It is what we need, if we want to be serious and take Australian rugby to the highest heights. We have to have that competition and have everyone pushing for that selection. That depth, especially in that playmaking role, is definitely what we need.”
Foley said he didn’t think an absence of genuine competition for his position in the team had impacted his desire, motivation or form.
“Hopefully not - I always think I am internally motivated. But maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t,” Foley said.
“Having Pup back, he is such a wealth of knowledge. He has played at such a high level for such a long period of time. He played when he was 18 or something.
“His experience overseas has definitely helped him see the game differently, and his game is really well rounded now. Being able to tap into that and have him push me, and push himself and drive the team, is something that can only be good for us.”
Toomua has played both fly-half and inside centre for the Brumbies and the Wallabies.
Former Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie gave Toomua a Test debut in the no.10 hot seat against the All Blacks in 2013, and Cheika used him as a back-up to Foley at the 2015 World Cup.
Most of Toomua’s Test caps have been at no. 12, however.
Foley said there were lots of benefits for a team in having a couple of experienced playmakers in the squad, particularly if they have different styles.
“Sometimes you can use those different combinations. I don’t think we are the same player, so having a guy who take the line on or having a guy who is more the distributor who can control a game, just having different flavours in a team definitely helps and allows us to prepare differently and allows us to see different things,” Foley said.
“If we are only seeing through one pair of glasses, you don’t get the whole picture. For us to have different players and different input, and different experience, can only be a good thing.
“If we sit in a meeting and see a scenario or we talk strategy, you can have more people bring their input and their own experiences over time, that can only be a good thing.
“Then we start evolving our game to be more well-rounded. If are doing something one or two ways, that’s short-sighted.”
Foley said he wasn’t expecting any selection shocks from the New Zealand team when the side is named for Bledisloe One next week.
The form of Richie Mo’unga for the Crusaders, and the absence of Sonny Bill Williams, have thrown up debate about who should start for the Kiwis.
But Foley said he expects Steve Hansen to go with his tried and trusted troops.
“Ryan Crotty has been exceptional for the Crusaders this year. He is always exceptional for the All Blacks. He will be the constant in the midfield there,” Foley said.
“And whoever they pick at ten and whoever they pick at 13, that won’t change too much. You could rely on Leinert-Brown and Barrett getting the nod, and I suppose they have flair and creativity and they also have that combination and consistency, they have been able to play a lot of footy as a three.
“Probably what we have always expected but we just have to be able to handle them, and handle them better.”
The Wallabies take on the All Blacks in the first Bledisloe at ANZ Stadium on Saturday August 18, kicking off at 8:05pm AEST, LIVE on FOX SPORTS and via RUGBY.com.au RADIO. Buy tickets here.