Wallabies coach Dave Rennie says he plans to “rotate the nines” throughout the spring tour of the UK and Europe.
History says the plan should go no further than Saint-Etienne – next year’s World Cup base and the French city the Wallabies spent the week preparing for this weekend’s opening Test on tour against Scotland – and instead be put in the bin as they prepare for battle at Murrayfield.
No nation has won the World Cup without a settled halves pairing and the suggestion that Rennie, who gave Jake Gordon the No.9 jersey for the Bledisloe series and Nic White the role in the previous seven Tests this year, will rotate his halfbacks is risky at this late stage in the World Cup cycle.
One Test here and there will not settle the debate. The last World Cup showed that, and it blew up in the face of Michael Cheika, who swapped and changed his halves pairing.
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Throughout that dire campaign in Japan, White and Will Genia regularly succeeded off the bench by injecting pace and tempo. It often led to the Wallabies making a comeback, which coincided with Cheika handing the No.9 jersey the next week to the replacement halfback.
Yet coming off the bench requires a different skill set than a starter, who often has to absorb pressure and sniff out opportunities against fresh forwards.
Eddie Jones has often turned to Danny Care to fill the role, with the more structured Ben Youngs starting since the Australian took over as England coach in 2016.
But in recent years Jones has sensed that the halfback is the focal point of attack.
It starts and often stops with how the halfback fares.
In Sydney in July, Jones subbed off Care before half-time because his halfback was not as precise as he needed to be. It was an astute move, one that perhaps has finished Care’s career once and for all, but it led to a change in tempo with the rising Jack van Poortvliet injected into the contest.
Van Poortvliet was not even Leicester’s first-choice halfback last season yet Jones took the 21-year-old on tour, handed him his debut in Perth, a start a week later in Brisbane before putting him on to spark England’s resurgence in Sydney to seal the come-from-behind series win.
Jones did not waver in his belief. Rennie must now do the same.
Tate McDermott – the excellent sniping Reds halfback – has at long last been given the No.9 jersey – and he must not just be limited to one Test in Edinburgh.
Cheika was encouraged by some astute judges to take the then uncapped halfback to Japan in 2019 because he shared some of the same qualities of Genia when he burst on the scene.
McDermott snipes regularly, forcing defences to sit on the heels and look at him, but more than that he is a fighter and a courageous defender.
He is also a leader, someone who demands better of himself and others.
Yet over the past three years Rennie has been reluctant to back McDermott, starting him on just five occasions.
Rennie’s suggestion that he will “rotate” his nines is ridiculous because McDermott, who is one of the few players in the Wallabies who offers a point of difference, has played just 46 minutes off the bench in 2022.
Now he will form a halves pairing alongside Bernard Foley for the first time on a surface that is expected to be wet after a week of rain in Scotland.
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McDermott should be given the first three Tests to show what he is capable of on the international stage.
Anything less is doing the livewire halfback and the Wallabies an injustice.
He will come up against Ali Price this weekend.
Price was the British and Irish Lions halfback last year and is a gifted running No.9.
Next week the Wallabies will square up against Antoine Dupont’s French side in Paris.
Dupont is not just the best halfback in the world, the Toulouse star is the best player in the game.
Affording McDermott the opportunity to play will give Rennie and the Wallabies clarity of where they sit in the world.
White and Gordon are two capable halfbacks. White’s first instinct is not to run the ball. Gordon, who backs up superbly on the inside, is too slow to the ruck.
McDermott, however, does not care what the clock says.
He is a player who likes to express himself, can step someone in a phone box and create space.
In an international game, where space is of a premium, rugby needs players who can break open a match. That is why McDermott is such an exciting prospect for the Wallabies.
Whether the team will see the best of the 24-year-old from the opening whistle remains to be seen. He has barely played a minute for the Wallabies in months and was not taken on the Australia A tour like others to get some time under his belt.
The Wallabies have barely scratched the surface on his immense potential.
McDermott, moments after Rennie encouraged him to play with his natural instinct, spoke of having a licence to play what is in front of him.
Now he must be given time to find his feet on the international stage, too.
If the Wallabies give him time, he can unlock opposition defences and give others like Foley outside him more time too.