Waratahs coach Rob Penney said gifted fullback Mark Nawaqanitawase had put himself straight into the reckoning for Super Rugby selection after the teenager starred in an impressive first trial win over the Highlanders at Leichhardt Oval.
On a slippery Leichhardt Oval, the Waratahs came from 14-0 down early to score six tries and post a 40-21 win.
For an opening trial in wet, the game defied the elements and was highly entertaining, and much of that had to do with the confident performances of the Waratahs’ much-hyped rookie class.
Playing in the unfamiliar position of fullback, 19-year-old Nawaqanitawase was the pick of the tyros and had commentators all over Super Rugby’s timezones suddenly practising his name with a display that was as assured as it was electric.
Showing none of the nerves a teenager in his first senior game for NSW should feel, the Burwood-raised speedster had the crowd rising with plenty of speed, flick passes and a lovely offload that led to a try.
Nawaqanitawase wasn’t alone however, with several of his 2019 Junior Wallabies teammates also central to the win, and showing the same beyond-their-years self-belief.
Flanker Carlo Tizzano scored a double in the second half, five-eighth Will Harrison had an energetic second half and one try assist, and big 19-year-old prop Angus Bell also showed why he has enormous wraps by laying on a try and showing bullocking strength.
A pleased Penney was circumspect about how much to read into the trial win over a below-par Highlanders side, but the Kiwi coach was more forthright in his praise and enthusiasm about the performance of Nawaqanitawase, and the other rookies.
"He’s a gem,” Penney said.
"He has a lot going for him and its going to be a real pleasure and a privilege to be part of the young man’s development over the next three or four years.
"He has some gifts and as you saw tonight he is unfazed by the step up, which is a wonderfull attribute to have.”
Asked if Nawaqanitawase would be immediately in the reckoning for Super Rugby selection, Penney said: "Without doubt, yep.”
Penney said the Super Rugby-readiness of other Junior Wallaby crew would be assessed on individual merit, but he said the confidence with which the youngsters displayed was a direct result of their success in recent years together in age-group competitions.
In the best of the Waratahs' tries, three successive players - Nawaqanitawase, Nick Champion De Crespigny and Bell - all flicked passed in traffic before Michael McDonald scored.
"It’s early days but certainly that confidence and self-belief is a wonderful attribute to have,” Penney said.
"They have come through some teams at age group level that have had some success, so they have earned the right to be confident. The beautiful thing about those guys is there is not an arrogant one amongst them.
"They have good belief but are very grounded and humble men though, and are very open-minded. Each case will be different but they are putting their hands up, no doubt.”
Though the Waratahs wobbled in the first of four quarters, and gave up two tries in the first ten minutes, he was pleased with the fightback.
The Waratahs began counter-attacking well in the second half but it was courtesy of a strong defensive performance by the team, and a muscular night from the forwards in general.
The Waratahs scrum was also a “weapon” that Penney praised.
"It was a pretty reasonable trial. I guess there are some really positive elements to it, and lots of areas to work on yet,”
"There was a genuine effort to try and play what was in front of them, and make some outstanding facets of play. We weren’t always able to complete, which is something we will have to go back and look at why we weren’t able to complete the opportunities we created.”
The Waratahs will welcome back their Wallabies for their next trial against Queensland in Dalby next week, and Penney admits he has several welcome selection headaches emerging.
In the headache areas of ten and prop, Penney said he would sleep a bit easier after being happy with both Mack Mason and Harrison, and strong efforts from a wide array of props, including Harry Johnson-Holmes, Tom Robertson, Tetera Faulkner and Bell late in the game.
"I am wrapped with the calibre of talent that’s there and it’s just re-inforced to me how far this group can go given a bit more experience and a bit more time,” Penney said.
"There is good deoth across the board. "There were a couple of positions we were concerned about and they were certainly not alleviated but there is a little bit relaxing around the prop area and the ten area, given what we saw today.”
Waratahs to face Highlanders
1. Tom Robertson
2. Robbie Abel
3. Harry Johnson-Holmes
4. Ryan McCauley
5. Tom Staniforth
6. Lachie Swinton
7. Charlie Gamble
8. Jed Holloway
9. Jake Gordon
10. Mack Mason
11. Alex Newsome
12. Karmichael Hunt
13. Lalakai Foketi
14. Cam Clark
15. Mark Nawaqanitawase
Damien Fitzpatrick, Tetera Faulkner, Pat Tafa, Will Harris, Carlo Tizzano, Rory O’Connor, Nick Champion De Crespigny, Angus Bell, Andrew Tuala, Chris Talakai
James Ramm, Joey Walton, Mitch Short, Will Harrison, Ben Donaldson, Triston Reilly, Michael McDonald
Highlanders starting team
1. Ayden Johnstone
2. Nathan Vella
3. Josh Iosefa-Scott
4. Jesse parete
5. Pari Pari Parkinson
6. Sione Misiloi
7. James Lentjes
8. Teariki Ben-Nicholas
9. Kayne Hammington
10. Mitch Hunt
11. Scott Gregory
12. Josh Ioane
13. Sio Tomkinson
14. Tima Fainga'anaku
15. Josh McKay
Ayden Johnstone, Nathan Vella, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Jesse Parete, Pari Pari Parkinson, Sione Misiloi, James Lentjes (C), Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Sabastion Siataga, Isaac Salmon, Josh Dickson, Zane Kapeli, Dillon Hunt, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
Kayne Hammington, Mitch Hunt, Scott Gregory, Josh Ioane, Sio Tomkinson, Tima Fainga’anuku, Josh McKay, Folau Fakatava, Bryn Gatland, Jona Nareki, Aleki Morris, Chris Kuridrani, Michael Collins