Kafer: The only way is up for Australia's young guns

Super Rugby - AU
by Rod Kafer

Australian rugby fans might just be witnessing the emergence of the next long-term Wallabies nucleus in Super Rugby AU.

There were plenty of things to like about the rugby played on the opening weekend but the most exciting was seeing the next generation of players who rose to the top for each of their teams.

The Brumbies' Noah Lolesio, Darcy Swain and Tom Wright; Queensland's Harry Wilson, Liam Wright, Fraser McReight and Tate McDermott; NSW's Will Harrison, Lachie Swinton and Jack Maddocks, and Melbourne's Pone Fa'amausili and Josh Kemeny.

There are plenty more names I could add to that list even just from the squads on the weekend but the important point is that all of those players are 23 or younger.

This group has an auspicious feel about it, more so than others in recent years.

I wouldn't be surprised if up to six of these guys have a chance to make their Wallabies debut (or in Wright and Maddocks' cases, the chance to add to their Test tally) by the end of 2020.

Don't get me wrong, there are good players coming through the Australian pathway every year but when there is a cluster of these kinds of exciting talents all at once that's a sign there is something special brewing.

Looking back through Australia's most successful Wallabies sides, the common theme has been consistent partnerships.

In the modern game, the 2008 Australian U20s team featured players like Kurtley Beale, Will Genia, Quade Cooper and David Pocock and James O’Connor debuted in the then Super 14 the same year.

All of those players have tallied more than 50 Tests for the Wallabies and were the core of Australian World Cup teams, in 2011 and 2015.

Three of that quartet have won Super Rugby titles.

When relationships are developed over a period of time they are stronger and that's when you get the likes of Gregan-Larkham, Horan-Little and Genia-Cooper establishing themselves.

The 1991 and 1999 World Cup winners were teams who had groups of players coming through at similar ages, building camaraderie and combinations and ultimately success from a young age.

It is too early to make like-for-like comparisons in individuals but when you look at the way this new group is emerging, you can see the signs of that nucleus developing.

Many of them have competed against or with each other throughout their teens.

When players have been competing for representative spots against one another for years, that pressure to perform carries through into Super Rugby and beyond and that is critical.

On the flipside, they have had promising results playing together as well - both the Junior Wallabies and Schools and U18s teams bested New Zealand last year and the former fell just short of Australia's first World Rugby U20s title.

The Junior Wallabies, whilst not happy with their second-place finish last year demonstrated that concerted effort from talented coaches in age grade teams will improve performance for both the short and long term.

Players who were set to return to that group this year before COVID hit, have said that they wanted to better that result.

That in itself reflects a standard that competitiveness isn't enough - these players want to win and they want to find a way to win in every game they play.

It's a competitiveness that has been reinforced in the barbs thrown between teams throughout week one of Super Ruby AU, which was pleasing to see.

Now it's up to Australia's Super Rugby franchises to give these players consistent opportunities to prove themselves.

Players will progress when given the opportunity to play at a higher level and have to have the chance to test themselves as it only gets harder with every step up.

Until you play, you never really know whether you're good enough and when we see potential in these kids, they need a chance to show they can match it.

So far, they're repaying the faith every step of the way.  As Yazz and the New Generation said “the only way is up!”

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