After a long and testing time as understudy, Daryl Gibson says Mack Mason is ready to step onto the big stage in the Waratahs no.10 shirt.
Mason starting at fly-half is one of a handful of changes made by Gibson for NSW’s clash with the Sunwolves in Newcastle on Friday, with pivot Bernard Foley rested as part of the Wallabies World Cup management plan.
Backrower Jack Dempsey and centre Adam Ashly-Cooper will also sit the game out, while Jed Holloway is out with a rib injury.
Lachie Swinton and Michael Wells move into the Tahs’ starting back row, with Ned Hanigan moving into the second row, and Karmichael Hunt replaces AAC at no.13. Curtis Rona also returns on the wing.
Mason will get only his second start since arriving at the Waratahs as a highly-touted Australian under 20s player from Queensland, who’d also spent time with the Melbourne Storm after leaving school.
Mason defected south from the Reds at the end of 2016 to learn under Foley but has since learned there are downsides to playing at the same club as the incumbent Wallaby in your position.
Though he’d have likely have been starting at other franchises, Mason has had to bide his time in Sydney club rugby and prior to this weekend, had only made one Super Rugby start for NSW back in 2017 against the Crusaders.
Gibson said Mason had been waiting “patiently” for his chance and despite a lack of Super Rugby minutes was confident he’d be able to run the team against the Sunwolves at McDonald Jones Stadium.
"Someone like Mack Mason, who has been training with real energy and enthusiasm but not really getting an opportunity ... I am really pleased for him to be able to give him that this week,” Gibson said.
"Through the trial period Mack played all of those games. It’s a good opportunity. We wouldn’t be putting him in if we didn’t have confidence in him.
"He has been patiently waiting for an opportunity over the last two years, and working away. He gets that on Friday night."
Mason has been naturally frustrated but also played the role of apprentice willingly.
He even re-signed with the Waratahs for another two years at the end of 2018; this time with an expectation Foley wouldn’t be there for the duration, though, according to Gibson.
"Through succession - we knew Bernard indicated this potentially could be his last year, and he could move offshore,” Gibson said.
"We needed someone who is going to be here long-term and we saw that in Mack.”
Gibson said there’d been no official confirmation from Foley he was set to depart Australian rugby but plugging more time into Mason is no doubt a priority either way, for many levels of Australia rugby.
The age profile of Australia’s five-eighth ranks is now fairly old - the starting tens last week were Foley (29), Quade Cooper (30), Bryce Hegarty (26) and Christian Lealiifano (31) - and while new talent is overdue, coaches find it tough to balance development with winning Super Rugby games each week.
Though he doesn’t have many minutes of Super Rugby under his belt, Gibson believes the time spent by Mason at the side of Foley has still made him a better player.
"That’s part of being an understudy. You get the benefit of learning from more experienced players around you,” Gibson said.
"He has had that and it has given him an opportunity to ensure his skills are at a high level and now he is really looking forward to getting an opportunity and playing for this team.”
Gibson said he had made “small changes” to his side and didn’t believe it would halt momentum gained by beating the Crusaders last week, nor expose his side to an ambush from a motivated Sunwolves side in Newcastle.
There will certainly be no underestimation of the Japanese side, who are last in the Aussie conference but almost beat NSW in Tokyo last month and are hurting from the decision last week to cut them from Super Rugby at the end off 2020.
"I believe the Sunwolves have been highly competitive in all their matches,” Gibson said.
"They were a minute away from beating us in Tokyo. They performed very well against the Reds in Tokyo and every game they’ve played they have been highly conpetitive. I am sure they’re going out there with added motivation.”
Replicating the performance against the Crusaders is a priority, Gibson said.
"When you are playing the best team in the league, it is very easy to get up for those games. And that’s what we saw when we had players playing to close to their best level. And that’s what you need, and that’s the challenge for us this week, to build on that,” Gibson said.
"We have been very focussed on getting better and that was evident on the weekend, in some areas of our game we are getting better and that’s really pleasing. The great thing for a coach is to look at our game really objectively and there are a number of areas where we are not quite where we need to be, to be a truly really competitive team. We have a lot of growth left in us."
Tom Staniforth will play for the first time from the bench after an off-season injury, and Lalaki Foketi will also return after an injury suffered in the trials.
The Waratahs take on the Sunwolves on Friday Match 29, kicking off at 7:45pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS and via RUGBY.com.au RADIO.
1. Harry Johnson-Holmes
2. Damien Fitzpatrick
3. Sekope Kepu
4. Ned Hanigan
5. Rob Simmons
6. Lachlan Swinton
7. Michael Hooper
8. Michael Wells
9. Nick Phipps
10. Mack Mason
11. Curtis Rona
12. Kurtley Beale
13. Karmichael Hunt
14. Cam Clark
15. Israel Folau
16. Andrew Tuala
17. Rory O’connor
18. Chris Talakai
19. Ryan Mccauley
20. Tom Staniforth
21. Jake Gordon
22. Lalakai Foketi
23. Alex Newsome