Wallabies playing a game of four scrum-halves
June 27, 2014
Nic White and Nick Phipps have the inside running having faced France © Getty Images
Ewen McKenzie has been placed in a predicament, albeit a somewhat pleasant one, with four halfbacks raising their hand for Wallabies selection. Will Genia, Nic White, Luke Burgess and Nick Phipps have all played their way into Wallabies contention under McKenzie, with two boasting considerable Test experience and two - White and Phipps - growing into the key role having been selected to play France recently. With the 2015 Rugby World Cup little more than 12 months away, all eyes, including those of Wallabies legend and Rugby world Cup winner George Gregan, are watching how this positional tug-of-war plays out.
"They bring competition, one, for that jersey, which is a great thing; so they're going to bring the best out of each other," Gregan told ESPN in an exclusive interview during the recent Land-Rover Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour to the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
"Nick Phipps is a good example of someone who's just been really consistent and just gotten better and better as the season's progressed in Super Rugby; that's why he's in the Wallaby team.
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"A guy like Will Genia is out injured [but] we all know what he can do, we all know what level of a player he is; he's one of the best halves in the world when he's at the top of his game. Luke Burgess he's represented the Wallabies in the past as well, played a couple of seasons in France for a very strong side, Toulouse.
"They're all slightly different in the way they play, but they're consistent in the sense that they are super competitive, and they add to the teams that they play for."
White wore the No.9 jumper successfully against France series, and he will be fighting hard to retain his starting position for The Rugby Championship and beyond - especially given the considerable success of his back line partnership with Bernard Foley and Matt Toomua against France. Working closely with White at Brumbies training, Gregan has witnessed White's progress and says "Nic's the sort of guy who's always really working hard on his game, he's always looking to improve".
"He's hard on himself, he's hard on the players around him, and more importantly he's just getting more and more comfortable in the Test match arena. When you start feeling more and more comfortable, you start seeing it for what it is: another game of rugby. Played at a higher pace obviously, a higher skill level, but your instincts, which have got him to where he is now, will hold him in good stead in Test match rugby."
Genia is the most experienced of the four contenders with 55-Test caps, and this time last year he was the incumbent, but he missed selection for the first Test of three against France before undergoing ankle surgery likely to keep him out of rugby for another six weeks.
Will Genia was the incumbent 12 months ago, when he was considered by many pundits to be the best scrum-half in the world © Getty Images
"Firstly, he needs to overcome his injury, which, I think is a six-to-eight-week proposition," Gregan said of Genia. "But to get back to the levels we know he can play at, one, I think is just confidence; being around better players, I think is going to help. I think that will bring the best out of him. Also just getting some consistency in his training and his performance will really help. He's not alone in that regard; there are lots of players who all improve once they get an opportunity to play and train consistently with a quality group of players."
Comparing the Wallabies' rare depth feeding the scrum with that of the All Blacks, Gregan believes Australia are in a great position to test combinations and build experience through the playmakers.
"I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with [Foley or Phipps linking up]; I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with Matt Toomua teaming up with Nick Phipps; I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with Toomua teaming up with Nic White or Christian Leali'ifano," Gregan said of potential partnerships. "I think we are in a really good position where that they are the kind of combinations that the team could string together and the team would still perform well.
Luke Burgess has not played Test football since 2011, but he has pressed his claim with Melbourne Rebels this season © Getty Images
"I think if you look at the All Blacks and they had a very similar scenario where you could have [Aaron] Cruden there, you could have Dan Carter, you could have Beauden Barrett; it doesn't matter. You could have someone other than Aaron Smith, it could be TJ Perenara; it's good to have competition in those combinations because you just never know. Injuries do occur in this game and it's nice to know you do have those players who can slip straight into those positions."
With The Rugby Championship just weeks away, and the Rugby World Cup countdown continuing, who should wear the Wallabies; No.9 jumper? Gregan won't be pulled into answering that question, saying instead that any of the four contenders can make the jersey their own.
"It's a hard question, and I don't like getting to much into those answers because I'm comfortable with all of them," Gregan told ESPN. "I've said this before, I think Phipps and obviously 'Whitey' have developed their game so much this year through how they're performing and leading their teams in provincial rugby, and I'd say the same with [fly-half] Bernard Foley as well.
"Genia, we know what he can do … a year or two ago, everyone was talking about him as the best halfback in the world. And the Lions series and after that first two Tests, he would have reinforced that belief. Sport's funny like that, but they've all got great potential and I'm not uncomfortable with any of them starting and they're all getting experience leading into the World Cup."
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