Jordan Petaia the greenest of shoots as Wallabies look to 2020

Rugby

TOKYO — As Australian rugby begins to pick up the pieces from a first Rugby World Cup quarterfinal exit since 2007 and starts to plot a path forward, there is at least one name to be genuinely excited about: Jordan Petaia.

The calls for change have come thick and fast since the Wallabies were beaten 40-16 by England in Oita on Saturday evening, with coach Michael Cheika announcing his departure on Sunday and several Rugby Australia [RA] administrators now firmly in the spotlight.

The search for a new coach has, as RA chief Raelene Castle revealed shortly after the Wallabies’ humiliating defeat, been underway for some time. Former Chiefs coach Dave Rennie remains the hot favourite to take on the role, but for whomever does end up succeeding Cheika there is the greenest of shoots to foster and mould in 19-year-old Queenslander Petaia.

From the very moment he leapt into the air to field an early England high ball to the series of powerful runs – he would finish with 12 runs for 62 metres with three clean breaks – Petaia looked completely at home in his first Test start at outside centre and just his third cap overall.

“Absolutely, for Jordan to step up into that role at 13, and I think he’s was one of our best there tonight, it says a lot about some of the guys we’ve got coming through and there [are] some guys that aren’t even here that are going to be great in this jersey going forward,” Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper said.

“So I guess that’s one of the good stories; on one side you’ve got a bunch of fellas leaving and on the other you’ve got people to fill that spot and I think there’s some really good stuff coming through.”

Petaia’s standout moment from what was a strong midfield debut came in the lead up to Marika Koroibete’s try, which brought the Wallabies right back into the contest after they had trailed 17-9 at halftime.

After taking an excellent cutout pass from right winger Reece Hodge, the easy play for Petaia would have been to shift the ball one pass wider. But he instead summed up the situation perfectly by dummying to Hooper, before throwing a deft inside ball to a free-running Koroibete, the winger doing the rest with a superb in-and-away on England fullback Elliot Daly to put an exclamation mark on his status as the Wallabies’ best player throughout the tournament in Japan.

Koroibete recently re-signed for a further two years with Melbourne Rebels and Rugby Australia, giving Wallabies fans hope they may see more of that kind of play from the duo from as early as 2020.

“The only person you’ve got to look at is Jordan, look how good was he, he was amazing,” outgoing Wallabies scrum-half Will Genia said. “Nineteen years old, [he] was one of the best players on the field, not just for us, but for both teams.

“You’ve got guys like that coming through coupled with guys who have built a lot of experience who are still young; look at our skipper [Hooper] who’ll play 100 Tests the very next time he laces up the boots; the forward pack; I think we’re in a really good position.”

David Pocock, another retiring Test star and a player who has had his fair share of injuries, stressed the need for the incoming Wallabies management – and those already entrenched at the Reds – to continue to manage Petaia’s workload given the youngster had already battled a couple of long-term injuries himself.

And then there was Samu Kerevi, who will continue in Japan to commence his contract with Suntory Sungoliath. He and Petaia may yet reform that midfield combination sooner than most might think – RA chief Castle reaffirmed the position that the governing body was looking at updating the Giteau Law so that it was more in line with the “modern” rugby world – but Kerevi was still disappointed the centre pairing really only had one chance to shine.

“It’s a combination that we wanted ever since we were at the Reds and obviously we couldn’t let that combination flourish with injuries,” Kerevi said. “It’s a kind of ‘what-if story’ now but I’m so happy that he’s taking the jersey on.

“I just hope that I’ve left the jersey in a better place than I’ve gotten it and through the past centres who’ve come through the Wallaby jersey, Tim Horan and [others], that have represented Australia at the highest level, I just hope I’ve added my little legacy to it and left it to the next bloke who fills that role.”

Alongside skipper Hooper, Koroibete and Petaia, the Wallabies will look to the likes of Matt To’omua, Scott Sio, Alan Alaalatoa, Izack Rodda, Taniela Tupou, Jack Dempsey, Isi Naisarani, Nic White and Reece Hodge to start a squad rebuild from 2020.

A strong preseason for Petaia will prove vital given he only played a handful of games across 2019, but he is certainly a player with immense potential. And while his final act as Wallabies coach will be remembered with no degree of fondness, Cheika does deserve credit for first taking Petaia away to Japan and then entrusting him with the No. 13 jersey against England.

“You will have seen for yourself, he beat defenders. He certainly didn’t look out of place there,” Cheika said of the last player to whom he extended a Test debut.

“He caught high balls … pretty accomplished for his first game in the centre internationally and this type of game. He handled himself very well.”

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