Bernard Foley is Australian rugby’s most valuable player. So it is high time the Wallabies’ No. 10 is placed on the ‘protected species’ list – to the extent he is overlooked for the lesser internationals in the lead-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The dearth of quality pivots in the local ranks has placed enormous pressure on Foley to constantly produce at Test level and the workload of the Wallabies’ key playmaker has for some time been overwhelming. Apart from being the team’s chief conductor, he is also their primary goal-kicker. So much of Australia’s fortunes revolves around Foley.
More often than not Foley has handled such pressure, producing several excellent performances during this season’s Rugby Championship. But something eventually must give, especially as Foley has experienced serious neck and concussion issues that saw him miss a month of Super Rugby football this year.
Ever since he joined the Waratahs ranks in late 2011, Foley’s football life has been frenetic. He now boasts 51 Test appearances in less than five seasons, with the bulk of them (31) being played overseas. On top of that, he has appeared 87 times for the Waratahs in a Super Rugby tournament that can be as intensive and demanding as the Test schedule.
It is often forgotten the demands on players during the provincial season, with the extensive travel and having to back up week in, week out taking an enormous toll on body and mind.
That the 28-year-old has only occasionally been sidelined is testament to the courage, willpower and ability of an often-under-rated operator.
As there is currently no bleedingly obvious replacement for Foley, especially with Quade Cooper on the outer – if anything untoward happens to him, Australian Rugby will find themselves floundering for an authoritative midfield general.
So while there is time before the next World Cup, this is when Wallabies coach Michael Cheika should start the search for a proper backup to Foley, especially with Kurtley Beale settled at No. 12.
This weekend, Foley’s involvement is crucial, with the All Blacks heading to Brisbane under-strength for the final Bledisloe Cup fixture. But the following Saturday when the Wallabies meet the Barbarians in Sydney is the ideal time for Foley to take a timely break, and for Cheika to go left field and experiment with someone new in the No 10 jersey.
The outcome of a Wallabies-Barbarians match doesn’t really matter, and such a fixture should be treated in the traditional Babas fashion as a time for adventure, fun and frolic.
Cheika would not upset anyone if he used this match to see whether the promising 22-year-old pivot Duncan Paia’aua is up to the next level by having him take on his Reds teammate Cooper, who is leading the Barbarians.
Grand Slam-winning coach Alan Jones talks exclusively to ESPN about his plans for the Barbarians and how he’ll use Quade Cooper against the Wallabies, and questions whether Kurtley Beale is playing in the right position.
Knowing that Australian Rugby needs greater depth at No. 10 and in the front-row, Cheika last week added Paia’aua and young front rowers Jermaine Ainsley and Folau Faingaa to the Wallabies squad. So the first step has been made. Although Paia’aua has recently been playing at inside centre, he was a five-eighth at the junior levels, and appeared at No. 10 for the Reds when Cooper was injured. Paia’aua deserves a chance.
Other No. 10 options include Karmichael Hunt, even if Cheika believes he is more value at fullback or as a midfielder, while Billy Meakes and Reece Hodge are others with the required skill-set. Spending some time directing the troops against the Barbarians could easily provide rewards in 2018-19.
The careful match management of Foley does not end with the Barbarians match. Other less significant Test matches in the lead-up to Japan 2019 should also be used as a chance to rest Foley.
That includes end-of-season northern hemisphere internationals and June domestic Tests.
Smart man-management in 2017 will make an enormous difference in 2019.