'We rolled the dice': Matt Toomua on the Wallabies' World Cup gamble, balance and his desire to play no.10 full-time

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

As the leading - and arguably only - option for the Wallabies no.10 jersey in 2020, Matt Toomua wants to set down the utility tag and play five-eighth for the full Rebels season in Super Rugby.

And after admitting the Wallabies “rolled the dice” with all-out attack at the Rugby World Cup, Toomua believes his UK-flavoured style will suit Dave Rennie's plan to restore “balance” to the Wallabies’ game.

With the departures of Christian Lealiifano, Bernard Foley and Quade Cooper, Toomua shapes as the primary option as the Wallabies no.10 for next year, at least, and likely beyond as well.

The Waratahs and Brumbies are set to use rookies at ten, and the Reds are understood to be looking at James O’Connor as a potential five-eighth.

Toomua, 29, was one of the form Wallabies at the World Cup, coming off the bench into the fly-half role, and he started in the position against Georgia.

The 29-year-old views himself a five-eighth and not only played there for the Brumbies for much of his career, he debuted for the Wallabies in 2013 in the no.10 as well.

But often a victim of his versatility, Toomua has only started five of his 52 Tests in the no.10 jersey; as opposed to 24 starts at inside centre.

The Rebels need a new no.10 with Cooper having departed for Japan, but with the Rebels having signed Western Force playmaker Andrew Deegan, there could be the temptation for coach Dave Wessels to again shift Toomua out a slot.

Speaking to RUGBY.com.au however, a forthright Toomua laid out his ambition to wear the no.10 jersey in Melbourne and, to get the best outcome, to own it for the season.

"People say, and I have said it a bit too, I just want to be in the 15,” Toomua said.

“But really, I want to play ten. I have always viewed myself as a ten who has played 12 but the goes I have had at ten, I probably needed some time in the saddle to develop it. Because I'd got used to playing 12 and the little details that go with it.

"But moving to ten … it’s a different position and in all honesty, it probably requires you to be in that position all year long at club rugby.

"I think at times I struggled to start at ten because I hadn’t had that time in the saddle. It has always been my favourite position and definitely with the end of World Cup marking the start of a new cycle, it’s something I want to stick at now and make it my spot.”

Australian coaches have been big advocates of the versatile footballer over the last decade, in the backline particularly.

Players share and swap roles endlessly in games and at training, theoretically for adaptability around injury and on-field circumstances.

The role-swapping not nearly as prevalent in Europe, however, and Toomua’s time alongside George Ford at Leicester showed him the value of a game managers who are given the primary responsibility of running the team.

"They’re far more controlling in a game,” Toomua said.

"A ten over there isn't just another number on your back. You hear that a bit: ‘It doesn’t matter what number you have on your back’.

"But it does up there and my personal view, I think it does as well.

"You are the quarterback essentially, along with the nine. I don’t think you can just have that mentality, definitely in the bigger games or the tight games.

"Sometimes in Super Rugby you will get a game that’s loose as, and it really doesn’t matter what number you’re wearing.

"But more games are going to won if you have a nine and ten pulling the strings, in a good way.

"That’s not news to any old-school rugby fans. We have known that for a long while. We have probably tried to re-invent that a little bit and it probably didn’t come off.”

The end-days of Michael Cheika’s reign as Wallabies coach also saw the failed strategical approach of trying to win the World Cup with a high-attack, low-kick game style.

Stats show the Wallabies pass-to-kick ratio was twice as high as the second-highest team in the tournament, and while it was enough for Australia to be one of the highest try-scoring teams in Japan, the approach ultimately didn’t trouble Wales or England for long enough to beat them.

Rennie’s appointment as the new Wallabies coach has been accompanied with interviews in which he has made it clear he plans to re-insert ‘balance' to the Aussie game; combining attack, a smart kicking game and defensive strength as all part of the same puzzle.

Toomua acknowledges the Wallabies’ approach at the World Cup was a gamble but after Perth, was 'probably' worth taking. 

"A lot of punters I have chatted to in the streets even identified, it was quite obvious we rolled the dice a little bit at the World Cup. That was quite evident,” Toomua said

"You could probably say it was justified after the year’s performances beforehand. But immediately that (balance) is definitely we need to solidify and hopefully it is something I can be good at there. I see my strengths as a being a good defensive and kicking ten, who can run as well.

"Maybe the time in the 12 jersey served me well in doing that. You can see it as a positive as well. That’s my plan, hopefully it fits in with Dave’s.”

Like most resting Wallabies, Toomua will resume training soon for the Super Rugby season, which is starting earlier than ever with a late January kickoff.

After slipping back into the Rebels camp mid-season last year, Toomua was on deck as the strong-starting Melburnians fell away badly and for the second year in a row, missed the finals with a loss in the last game.

A successful Rebels season look like in 2020 would “would be, as a first point, getting to the finals”.

"Topping the Aussie conference would be the most direct way to do that, and I’d say judging on the squad and the staff we have got, I think we have a very chance to do that,” Toomua said.

"We just fell short last year and I am sure that will be firmly in people’s minds. There won’t be any lack of motivation.”

Toomua said there would technical areas of improvement focussed on by Wessels in pre-season, but he is confident the Rebels squad has developed a nice hard edge based on the experiences of the past two seasons.

"The team started extremely well at the start of the year, but teams kind of figured us out a little bit by the end. However, I think as well, just having guys who will be better for that experience, I think it is something that’s overlooked these days,” Toomua said.

“Everyone wants the quick fix or the one thing that will fix it, however, there is a development aspect you can’t fast-track sometimes.

"I look at that England team. Although they fell at the last hurdle, so many of them were involved at the World Cup in England (in 2015). And I know first-hand, you speak to those guys, that experience had made them stronger for this World Cup. For us, we have a lot of guys who went through that (disappointment) and you can’t simulate that, you can’t make it up. We have been through it now and seen it, and we’ll be better for it.”

10 & 12 @quadecooper @m.toomua

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Amid the post-World Cup gloom, does that same theory stand up for the Wallabies in 2020 too?

"This year, and in four years time as well,” Toomua said.

"It’s only natural for people to think that way and be disappointed. It can often be a bit of 'throw the baby out with the bath water' kind of response but I know we’ll be better for the experience.

"Some fellas are gonna be quite weathered in that sense, and I just come back to England. They crashed out of their own World Cup and they came back. It wasn’t a fluke.”

Toomua said he is excited to combine with Deegan, who has been a well-performed playmaker for the Western Force for the last two years and played for the Super Rugby Barbarians in the trial match against the Wallabies last year.

'I haven’t seen a lot of him but I didn’t look him up when we signed him and spoke to a few guys, and the immediate thing that jumps out is that he’s an experienced player,” Toomua said.

"He has been through Connacht, played with the Force, was up with the Tahs, and it all counts. That’s great. It means we have a lot player there were experience and he’s going to have good ideas. because he’s been in a few environments and played the game well.

"That’s exciting. He is going to challenge me for a spot and at the Rebels he is going to add something, because he is coming from a winning team in the Force. You can’t discount those experiences."