Rugby’s feelgood story must not be exploited
AUSTRALIAN rugby could become "a fantastic product" on the world stage, according to Waratahs coach Rob Penney, as long as it shows some patience.
Penney understands the expectation that has built up behind the Australian Under-21 side that last year was just beaten for the Junior World Cup by France.
His own NSW side has regularly featured three of the star graduates of that team, five-eighth Will Harrison, winger Mark Nawaqanitawase and prop Angus Bell, which makes Penney acutely aware of the pressure the next generation will encounter.
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"Australia could have a fantastic product," said Penney from his home in Christchurch.
"The talent is there. It is just going to need a bit of nurturing, but what scares me is that there is a lack of patience.
"They want their Under-21s to become superheroes very quickly and we don't want to damage the really good ones by rushing them through too quickly."
That is not to say that players such as Queensland Reds No 8 Harry Wilson, who arguably was Australia's best performer in the seven rounds of Super Rugby completed before the coronavirus pandemic struck, cannot share Test duties along with Melbourne Rebels' World Cup veteran Isi Naisarani. Or that Fraser McReight or fellow Reds flanker Liam Wright won't see action for the Wallabies in company with Michael Hooper.
Yet certainly Penney believes it is best not to flood the Wallabies with young rookies, as talented as they might be. And especially not in Bledisloe Cup Tests against the All Blacks, which is likely to the only international side Australia play this year.
"(Wallabies coach) Dave (Rennie) is a smart selector and Jonny, (director of rugby Scott Johnson and Wallabies assistants) Scott Wisemantel and Matt Taylor are all quality blokes. They'll put a good group together but it will just take time. We'll see what unfolds."
The national selectors were regularly picking a Wallabies squad during the seven rounds completed and while nothing definitive can be drawn from it, it did not greatly surprise that the list included 14 Reds, 12 Brumbies, eight Rebels and just three Waratahs.
"It is certainly a fair reflection of performances but we know we have better talent in our mix and as our performances improve, we hope that obviously hope those quotas change," Penney said.
Penney went back to New Zealand to be with his family through the COVID-19 lockdown period but was due to return to Australia this week.
He will still be in quarantine when Super Rugby players resume training on Monday, May 18.
Still, he will be on hand during six of the seven weeks his side will have to prepare for the rebooted season that is scheduled to start on July 3.
All four Australian Super Rugby sides will compete, almost certainly alongside the Western Force team that was culled from the competition in 2017.
The patronage of Perth billionaire Andrew Forrest has kept the Force alive and it is slightly ironic that they will now be returning to top-line competition just as Rob Clarke, one of the key ARU figures at the time the Perth club was cut, has returned to RA as interim CEO.
It is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be any crossover Super Rugby finals against Kiwi sides, primarily because the 10-round NZ competition will get underway as much as three weeks earlier.
"I don't think it (the headstart over Australia) is critical (from a rugby perspective) but what is critical is that they will have the game back in the public domain and they are getting revenue again," Penney said.
Although New Zealand Rugby is publicly putting a lot of effort into keeping alive its contact with South Africa, Penney is convinced that the man in the street in New Zealand is keen for a trans-Tasman competition.