An open letter to Jordan Petaia

Hi Jordan Petaia, Is it all right if I call you Jordie even though we haven’t met? Most others seem to, even Dave Rennie so I trust it’s ok. Jordie you’ve been on my Wallaby watching rugby mind for a few years now, and I really felt for you being injured. Actually, your injuries and […]

An open letter to Jordan Petaia

Hi Jordan Petaia, Is it all right if I call you Jordie even though we haven’t met? Most others seem to, even Dave Rennie so I trust it’s ok.

Jordie you’ve been on my Wallaby watching rugby mind for a few years now, and I really felt for you being injured. Actually, your injuries and how that must have felt for you was secondary to my own selfish desire.

I just wanted you to get on the field hoping you could unleash some magic to help us beat the All Blacks as you seemed to have that X factor that was missing. Then along came Caleb Clarke and blew us away and I had another case of ‘Lomu déjà vu’, seeing yet another Kiwi winger run over us, through us and even around us.

And then something happened. We stopped expecting youth to save us, Dave Rennie got some calmer heads and won four on the trot, and once again being a Wallaby supporter was OK.

So mate I’ve had an epiphany. And I want to take away a load that I reckon you secretly would be glad to ditch, then give you something valuable.

Firstly, I want to relieve you of the weight of expectation of being “The Next Big thing”, hereafter called TNBT.

Back during those sometimes tantalising but more often bleak ‘Cheika’d’ years of 2017-2020, when we struggled against good opposition and got sometimes close to but mostly smashed by the ABs, even the Argies, Poms and Lions, I was a Wallaby supporter grasping at straws.

I envied the All Blacks for their potency, their ability to turn our mistakes (so many) into tries either side of halftime or just minutes from the end and run away with the game when I thought we had a sniff.

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

But every loss hurt. Actually that scarring began the day Jonah Lomu first played against us then began ripping out supporters hearts by winning games for The All Blacks. Lomu, the evil Emperor, Darth Sidius of the rugby empire (Star Wars reference #1).

You see I’d been spoilt. As a product of St Joseph’s College Hunter’s Hill, a GPS school with a proud rugby record, I’d got used to winning.

In six years I only played in one losing team. Also I’d witnessed the glory days, the Rod McQueen and John Eales era, David Campese and the Ellas, the George Gregan/Stirling Mortlock/Chris Latham/Joe Roff/Jeremy Paul/Toutai Kefu days.

The Eales, Kefu and Larkham clutch wins at the death, and the Brumbies’ 2004 grand final win against the Crusaders.

There was rivalry of course, but up until then the landscape had been fairly even.

Then came Richie McCaw, the Darth Vader of Trans Tasman rugby, master of the ruck’s dark arts, who spawned a steady stream of players who regularly plunged sharp stakes into the hearts of ‘entitled’ Oz rugby fans. We know the names because we cursed them so often: Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Israel Dagg, Kieran Read, the Smiths Ben, Conrad and Aaron, Joe Rokocoko, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Jerome Kaino and Dane Coles to name just a few in non sequential time order. And Ardie Savea, the ‘big bus’.

And Jordie I contend that we’ve wanted a weapon of our own. Someone with strength and power, ball playing skills too but just a bloody steamroller to give those Kiwis a taste of their own. And like those before you, we hung our hopes on you-our saviour.

However it’s not only unrealistic but also selfish to ask and expect a single young player like yourself to pull a whole team across the line, unless you were a supernatural being. Which of course you’re not.

We’ve already seen how the TNBT label is a weight that very few young athletes can bear.

Joseph Suaalii, the rugby prodigy who converted to league this year for the Roosters, failed to live up to the hype with a season-ending foot injury.

Curtis Patterson the cricketer suffered the same fate.

The jump from being a teen, schoolboys or U20s sensational such as Andrew Kellaway, James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale, and Harry Wilson is a huge leap because you are now playing against men.

Men who have grown into their bodies more fully, who have the maturity that those mid-twenty years bring, sometimes the extra motivation of a family and children to play for, as well as team and country.

So now having taken that weight off your shoulders, I want to offer you something you may not even know you want or need-the freedom to still be an adolescent, a young man, to have fun. Not with the white powder of course, but to actually smile on the football field and enjoy your time there.

Jordan Petaia of the Reds makes a break

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Another gift I’d like to offer you is that of perspective. If you can manage your body, mind and emotions well enough to have a successful rugby career, and I certainly wish that for you, then there will be a life after that. And with the profile and respect you have built, you will be able to influence people’s lives for the better.

Young boys, and even young girls will see your exploits on the field, observe your humility and how you carry yourself, and will want to be like you. And that must be a good thing wouldn’t you agree?

Because sport, from what I’ve witnessed, is such a wonderful vehicle for personal growth and expansion. It requires and builds focus, commitment, teamwork, a solid work ethic and sacrifice for the greater good.

Sportspeople learn the sweet taste of winning and the bitterness of losing, as illustrated by Dave Rennie’s wise assertion that this year’s three Bledisloe losses would build his team’s determination to turn things around, which they did with four straight wins.

You have a good group of men around you now. A coach who is a fine man manager, and you’re in the company of men who have travelled full circle and returned much wiser like Samu Kerevi, Quade and James O’Connor. They and others are exemplars and mentors who will assist you in gaining and maintaining perspective.

To my mind, of greatest importance Jordie, is the fact that you and your performance are separate-they are not the same. A loss, some mistakes, even a below par game doesn’t make you any less of a human being, and as Quade put it, “It’s only a game”.

And that very famous English rugby pundit William Shakespeare also noted:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts..”

So go on the European tour and have fun Jordie, the right kind of fun. The general public are a funny bunch. During the game they want you to carry their own unrealised hopes and dreams, then either put you on a pedestal and tear you down, or just tear you down because you’re living the life they dreamed of but couldn’t create.

Oh, this really is the most important thing I want you to get Jordie. It’s that you’re good enough, just as you are. Good enough as a human, good enough as a rugby player. The coach has shown faith in you, your family believe in you, the team at the Reds believe in you, your Wallaby teammates believe in you.

Now it’s just up to you to believe in you. To believe you are enough. And it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Why do I say that? Because I can tell by the look in your eyes on the field, and your injury pattern, that you are still wrestling with some ‘inner demons, as are nearly all the world.’ That you are trying too hard! I still am as well.

Maybe you saw Lomu, Nonu and Savea and wanted to be the person who ‘ran’ over players. Perhaps you have always had to prove yourself to family or yourself. Or could it be that your parents always pushed you to perform, or you felt the need to prove to those around you how tough you were.

Whatever it is, it’s ok now. You can relax just a little. You’re in the team, and you’ve got this!

Luckily for you your timing is excellent. There’s no longer any need to play the Cheika ‘attackathon’ from all parts of the ground. Dave Rennie has a different strategy and I hope you take it on too. As an example, rewatch the Wallaby v South Africa Game 2 highlights.

Around the third minute, Folau Fainga’a takes a pass from Taniela Tupou and is tackled five metres out. He turns and throws a one handed pass to Andrew Kellaway who has come in to form a ruck.

Kellaway, who has learned patience and the value of treasuring the ball and consolidating field positioning, isn’t expecting a pass and knocks it on. The Boks are off the hook, pressure is released.

Dave Rennie looks on.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Compare that with Pete Samu’s second half break off Kerevi’s offload. He manages to stay on his feet, and instead of throwing a speculator as Wallabies have been guilty for several years, his Crusaders training kicks in and he takes the ball into a ruck. Marika scores very soon after.

So Jordie, a few one handed offloads will be ok, but do you know the Pareto Principle or 80:20 rule. It says loosely that 80 per cent of your results come from 20 per cent of your efforts. The All Blacks certainly know that and just look at how many tries they have scored of our players pushing passes. So less can be more, as weird as that may sound.

Well Jordie, I look forward to watching your growth and maturity as a person and in your rugby game. I’m sure as well as your power game, you are also learning the subtleties of players like Ben Smith and Anton Lienart Brown who were not big men and so had to develop two invaluable rugby IQ skills – finding and running into space; and mastering BIPART, which in my humble opinion is one of the hardest things to learn in rugby and life.

BIRPART is an acronym for “Being In the Right Place At the Right Time”, something Andrew Kellaway seems to be getting good at.


As a real tryhard myself, I found pushing and trying too hard blocks out those BIPART messages. So instead of doing everything at 110per cent all the time, I’d love to see you do it at 100per cent just 20per cent of the time, and know when to pull back and when to go hard. I reckon you’ll have less injuries that way.

Enjoy the spring tour and your Baa Baa’s experience Jordie. I hope it’s both the making of and rounding out of you as a player and person.

Yours truly

Mark Austin (Roar Rookie, rugby tragic, self-employed philosopher)

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Coach’s Corner Issue 30: How Tolu Latu can get even more from Taniela, and Eddie’s big decision

Thanks once more to all who contributed a question, or helped develop one at the call-out stage! Dave Rennie appears to have the firepower and at full strength, a 23 that might manage a 100 per cent record. Question: aside from Hodge cementing 15, where are the big proofs to come? – Noodles. What will […]

Coach’s Corner Issue 30: How Tolu Latu can get even more from Taniela, and Eddie’s big decision

Thanks once more to all who contributed a question, or helped develop one at the call-out stage!

Dave Rennie appears to have the firepower and at full strength, a 23 that might manage a 100 per cent record. Question: aside from Hodge cementing 15, where are the big proofs to come?
– Noodles.

What will Tolu Latu add to the team? I have no idea how he has been performing for Stade and thought his games for the Wallabies and Tahs were okay without being exceptional. What have I been missing that would make him such a key selection over someone like Fainga’a?
– Broken Shoulder.

The inclusion of more European-based players for the end of year tour is still causing a great deal of division among Wallaby supporters.

At one vitriolic extreme, we had ‘Zulu’ commenting about Will Skelton, “He is so slow to breakdowns, the worst player I have ever seen and he can’t jump in lineouts.” It takes a long time to shake such perceptions, however outdated they may be.

I have examined the case for taking Rory Arnold and Will Skelton in the second row over a number of previous articles. One tour pick who has flown under the radar somewhat is Tolu Latu at hooker.

The middle of the front row is one area where the Wallabies have been struggling to find a complete answer. Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Folau Fainga’a and Jordan Uelese are all primarily set-piece specialists who do not offer a huge amount of value in the areas outside it – not to the degree that a Codie Taylor or Dane Coles will offer it to New Zealand, or a Malcolm Marx to South Africa.

On the other hand, Lachlan Lonergan at the Brumbies has the extra value, but not the core strength to survive in the international scrummage at present. The man most likely to tick the majority of boxes is ex-Waratah Tolu Latu, now plying his trade with Stade Francais in the Top 14.

At a solid 110 kilos, Latu is a decent operator at the set-piece. It is likely that his patience and ‘feel’ in the driving seat of the lineout will appeal greatly to forwards coach Dan McKellar.

Both of these examples occurred in the World Cup group game against Fiji in 2019.

The care with which Latu refuses to advance ahead of his blockers, and ‘feels’ the weakness in the defensive front close to the goal-line, is evident – especially from the bird’s eye view.

His scrummaging ability may help make Taniela Tupou an even bigger threat at tighthead prop: Latu is two or three inches shorter than Brandon Paenga-Amosa and a better height match for Tupou’s squat build.

That is Sam Matavesi, the estimable Northampton hooker who is being lifted out of the front row, and split away from his tighthead by Latu.

But it is outside the scrum that Dave Rennie and his coaches will probably see the greatest improvement at the spot. Before he left Sydney for Paris, Tolu Latu was one of the top on-balling number 2’s at the breakdown, and could offer invaluable support to Michael Hooper in an area of relative weakness.

Latu also provides good footballing value on attack with his ability to offload with accuracy.

The next batch of questions are related to the need to keep experienced players (if necessary, recruited from overseas) at the top of the international game.

As players are asked to expand their skill sets constantly, coaches should too. A recent WB coach could not, and we went from second to seventh in one World Cup cycle. What Brad Thorn does next will be interesting. What lessons and key insights could an Australian Super coach take from the recent WB Rennie-vation? Is it likely that Thorn might give Jordan Petaia time in the 15 shirt to assist Wallaby depth?
– Ken Catchpole’s Other Leg.

I disagree with the contention that leaving young players behind is placing Now ahead of the Future. Pre-season is an opportunity to practice skills and take your conditioning to the next level; strength, speed, stamina. The longer a Wallaby career the fewer you get, either through the late start post EOYT or catching up with overdue rehab or surgery.

The cross-fertilisation of knowledge that occurs when a veteran player returns home after a stint in the UK or France is invaluable for their new (home-grown) coaches and playing colleagues alike.

You cannot tell me that both the forwards coaches and the front-rowers at first the Western Force, and then the Wallabies did not learn something concrete of value from Greg Holmes’ experience at Exeter. That experience in both hemispheres will in time, be the making of Holmes into an outstanding coach in his own right.

A Super Rugby head honcho like Brad Thorn can also learn a lot in his bid to convert his Reds side from Aussie-beaters to Kiwi-beaters in the 2022 season. He has James O’Connor already, maybe he can add Samu Kerevi too in the centres – or even Luke Morahan in the back three. That experience will help sew his young back-line together and make it drum-tight.

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Likewise, a full pre-season of preparation for the likes of Harry Wilson and Fraser McReight will help them mature physically within their own natural rhythm, obeying the demands of their bodies rather than pushing themselves beyond their limits and being beaten to a pulp on an end of year tour up north.

As ‘Muglair’ added perceptively, “He [Dave Rennie] has the luxury of making good decisions, although resting Wallabies who are not ready for Test football is not rocket science. I wonder if we are now so used to pushing players too quickly that we see this as the anomaly.”

Having a common selection policy in regard to a young player like Jordan Petaia will also be of definite value. Australia needs its provincial coaches picking young players in the spots that Dave Rennie wants to play them at international level, so that they do not need to start from scratch all over again. That represents a true streamlining of coaching purpose in a minority sport.

Eddie Jones has made a lot of squad changes. How much you do you think he will change his style, and how long will it take to bed in? Do you think England will adapt quickly and be quite successful against Boks and Wallabies?
– PeterK

Does Marcus Smith gel with [Owen] Farrell at 12? Do you start one, finish the other? Smith is another player that doesn’t seem to need a second playmaker. He isn’t necessarily creating for other players, but creating chances everywhere.
– Hoy

Took advice from someone’s comments here and viewed Bristol v Harlequins…question: How do you rate England’s talent for the 2023 World Cup, and do you think Eddie will exploit it?
– Kashmir Pete.

How do you assess where England are at? How should Eddie bring in Marcus Smith? I think it’s safe to say he has surpassed Ford, but could a Smith-Farrell axis work? How do the administrators create more matches like Bristol vs Harlequins? Twice now, there has been great skill from both sides in a compelling game.
– Sinckler for the rules.

The English have Alex Dombrandt (my pick), Sam Simmonds, and Billy Vunipola. 2023 beckons. Would you start testing Sam and Alex; since Billy is known? Or pick one? Or stick with Billy?
– Harry Jones.

There may be something of a sea-change occurring in Old Blighty. The Saracens mafiosi have controlled much of the coaching philosophy on the domestic (and international) scene over the past decade.

The word has spread, with Alex Sanderson now in charge at Sale, and Steve Borthwick at Leicester. Eddie Jones was a technical director at the parent club when he coached in England between 2007-2009.

Saracens are the Roundheads of the English game. They prize kicking, defence and physicality above all else. The one Saracens coach who tried his luck with a club with a far more Cavalier attitude was ex-England defence coach Paul Gustard. He left suddenly ‘by mutual consent’, after almost three years at the Stoop with Harlequins.

It was never going to be an easy graft for ‘Guzzy’, and the friction has also seeped through into the international arena, where there has been many a complaint that clubs who do not espouse the Saracens spirit – such as Quins and Exeter – struggle to get their players selected for England.

Number 10 Marcus Smith, and number 8s Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds are three obvious cases in point. At least two of those players (Smith and Simmonds) were rated more highly by the Lions coaches in South Africa than they were by Eddie Jones in England.

Is the mood of England’s enigmatic head coach about to change? He excluded hardy Saracens’ perennials such as the Vunipola Brothers and Jamie George from his training squad for the end-of-year internationals, but the acid test of 23-man squads for Test matches is yet to come.

A particular question has been raised about whether Marcus Smith’s presence threatens the England future of Owen Farrell.

Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall was keen to downplay that idea recently, saying; “I don’t think we necessarily see that as a rivalry. In the 60-odd games that Eddie has been England’s head coach, Owen has played 16 times at 10. He’s played at inside centre most of the time so I’m not sure that’s Owen’s competition, to be honest.”

The cold reality behind the spin is that Smith’s selection would threaten Farrell’s selection at either 10 or 12. At Harlequins, Smith plays with a very big physical presence outside him in the shape of South African number 12 André Esterhuizen, who incidentally is more than good enough to play a role for the current Springbok team at a massive 6’5″ and 115 kilos.

Like Quade Cooper, Marcus Smith does not need another playmaker at inside centre. Both would much prefer a Samu Kerevi or an Esterhuizen to do the heavy lifting.

At the core of Harlequins’ recent success is the quartet of Alex Dombrandt at 8, Danny Care at 9, Smith at 10 and Esterhuizen at 12. In the recent English Premiership game against Bristol Bears, Quins were losing 0-21 when Smith entered the fray off the bench for Tommaso Allan in the 26th minute. With Smith reunited with his key teammate s, they then proceeded to score 52 of the next 55 points to win the game running away.

The synergy between the quartet is very evident at set-piece starters.

Just like Australia with Quade and Samu, the big man will often get first touch with the number 10 reserved for a future phase. Dombrandt plays scrumhalf at the base, Care puts big André through on the burst, and Quins finished two phases later with a try for Michael Lynagh’s son Louis in the right corner.

The combination works well as a decoy.

Eight, 9 and 10 all fake right, but the play is actually going in the opposite direction through Esterhuizen.

In phase-play, the quartet are even more potent.

Danny Care cleverly takes a quick peek to the left before switching right, but Dombrandt’s contribution is critical.

(Highlighting courtesy of BT Sport)

His size and offloading make all the difference to create an opportunity for Esterhuizen out wide. His involvements on defence, where he scored one intercept try from distance, and had three more turnovers at the breakdown add to his value.

Marcus Smith’s instinctive appreciation in the teeth of the defence is truly suited to the modern (post ruck directive) game.

He’s playing tight to the forward pod in front of him, ready to take advantage of any weakness right on the gain-line.

His kicking game in instinctive situations was also a joy to behold.

The wider question of why the English Premiership is uncorking such riotous audience spectacles is also related to that change of ‘presiding spirit’.

With Saracens out of contention for a season due to their salary cap breaches, attack-based sides like Harlequins, Exeter, Bristol and Northampton have flourished in the vacuum – aided and abetted by a tranche of young referees happy to reward quick resolutions at the breakdown.

Look in again for the next Coach’s Corner on October 29 (after a one-week break)!

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