Waratahs coach Rob Penney has backed "unusually athletic" prop Angus Bell to handle the heat of Super Rugby after naming the teenager to make his first start against the Rebels on Friday night.
But Penney also warned that the re-build of the Waratahs front-row - in which Harry Johnson-Holmes will continue at tighthead against Melbourne - will be a “medium to long-term prospect”, following the departure of veteran Sekope Kepu last year.
“We have to spend the time and energy and commitment to making that work.” Penney said.
The inclusion of Bell, 19, is one of six changes made by Penney to the starting side following the Waratahs’ 32-12 loss to the Blues in Newcastle last weekend.
Jed Holloway returns to the back row for Lachie Swinton, while Alex Newsome comes in from the wing to replace Lalakai Foketi at no.13.
Jack Maddocks gets his first start for the Waratahs on the wing, and Cameron Clark will also start on the other wing, replacing Mark Nawaqanitawase, who has recovered from his awkward try-scoring landing last week but has been benched as a management call.
Penney said some of the changes were motivated partly by some concerns arising from their first two games and give players exposure to Super Rugby.
"It is partly a reaction to some of the issues we have been having, and partly the need to find our best combinations and grow the total group,” Penney said.
“We have come in on a pretty short program and there is not a lot of experience in the group, as you know. We have just got to expose some people, so it is a bit of both there.”
The elevation of Bell, one of the promising stars to emerge from the 2018 Australian Schools and under 18s side and then the 2019 Junior Wallabies, to a starting loosehead role ahead of Wallaby Tom Roberston is a big show of confidence in a position that values players closer to 30 than 20.
But Penney said the big youngster, who is son of former Wallaby and current NSW scrum coach Mark Bell, can handle the step up after seeing his impact from the bench.
"Angus is an outstanding prospect. The thing when you are ever considering putting a young guy into the starting position, or any position, but into the front row in particular is their physical and mental ability to cope,” Penney said.
"Angus has proved over the last couple of weeks that he is more than capable. It’s going to add to his development rather than be detrimental.
"You just have to be careful but his maturity is such, physically and mentally, that now the time is right. He is a gem of a player so he’ll just grow from here.
"He is unusually athletic for a front rower. He is very, very strong … technically very able. He has been in the lounge (room) from any early age learning his craft in front of the television with his old man, I am sure.
"All those elements are key but the biggest one is his mental application. He is very determined, he has a deeply ingrained wining attitude and he has resilience.”
The Waratahs scrum was bossed by the Blues in Newcastle and the decision to convert Johnson-Holmes back to a tighthead was put under plenty of scrutiny given his tough night at the office.
Penney said there was no quick fix to replacing Kepu, and indicated not much had been done by past regimes to prevent the sort of depth problem they’re experiencing now.
"When Sekope was here, he just about played every minute of every game and my personal attitude to that is we need to grow more people,” Penney said.
"We are going to have some challenges along the way. We wa t to grow the local boys, we want to give those boys an opportunity and there are going to be some hardships along the way.
"Putting Harry back to tighthead, yeah he had a tough day last week and we are expecting him to learn and improve from that. But we are not expecting the finished product in the short-term. It’s a medium to long-term prospect growing a tighthead and we just hope it’s more medium than long.”
Newsome plays centre when at Shute Shield level but has never played there in Super Rugby, but Penney is banking on his workrate and skill-set to improve the midfield, where NSW have been targeted in the first two games.
"Hopefully it will help us get the section between our set-piece and our outsides working more efficiently,” Penney said.
"We were a bit stumbly-bumbly in that area and it gives Lalakai an opportunity to step back and maybe learn some things and come in off the bench and contribute with hopefully a clear head about what his role is."
Nawaqanitawase picked up a sore back from his awkward fall but is physically fine to play, Penney said. But with Maddocks and Clark high calibre players in need of an opportunity, the coach said it was decided to put the teenager back on the bench for an impact role this week.
WARATAHS TEAM V REBELS, AAMI PARK, FRIDAY, 7.15PM (AEDT
1 ANGUS BELL
2 ROBBIE ABEL
3 HARRY JOHNSON-HOLMES
4 TOM STANIFORTH
5 ROB SIMMONS (c)
6 JED HOLLOWAY
7 MICHAEL HOOPER
8 JACK DEMPSEY
9 JAKE GORDON
10 WILL HARRISON
11 JACK MADDOCKS
12 KARMICHAEL HUNT
13 ALEX NEWSOME
14 CAMERON CLARK
15 KURTLEY BEALE (vc)
16. DAMIEN FITZPATRICK
17. TOM ROBERTSON
18. TETERA FAULKNER
19. RYAN MCCAULEY
20. LACHLAN SWINTON
21. MITCH SHORT
22. LALKAI FOKETI
23. MARK NAWAQANITAWASE