Whose stocks grew despite injury, who was a waste of money? Wallabies’ winners and losers from 2022

    If only there was a crystal ball to see what direction Rugby Australia should head in 2023. After all, 2022 showed plenty, but what did it really reveal?

    A handful of Australian players showed they are of international calibre, but plenty also stalled in their development.

    As for Dave Rennie’s Wallabies? Well, one step forward and two backward would be harsh. But it wouldn’t be too far off the mark either.

    Injuries meant the Wallabies go into 2023 as a great unknown.

    But by giving Rennie a green light just because the Wallabies suffered injuries regularly would be far too generous.

    Why did they occur? What is going on his camps? Are players being rushed back by injury? And strength and conditioning aside, was there still enough star power? Yes. Jock Campbell, after all, was not given a chance during The Rugby Championship while all three halfbacks were fit for the entire year with the exception of the final Test, and yet the chopping and changing continued.

    And why can’t the Wallabies win the tight ones more than not? It’s not just a theme of 2022, but last year’s Spring Tour too?

    Dave Rennie’s stocks dropped in 2022. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

    These are questions the independent review will be trying to get to the bottom of when it delivers its report back to Rugby Australia in late January.

    Here are our Australian rugby winners and losers from a roller-coaster 2022.

    Winners

    Nick Frost

    One moment he was off to Japan. The next he was remaining put. How Rugby Australia ever allowed Frost to be a plane ticket away from moving away from Australia, for a second time, is gobsmacking. It goes to show the talent identification systems aren’t working how they should.

    Thank goodness Dan McKellar put some pressure on Frost to stay otherwise he would have ended up another Harry Hockings. Frost is by no means the finished product, but few 23-year-olds are at that age. Rory Arnold had only just started playing rugby at the same age.

    From the moment Frost took the field in Brisbane he looked a Test player. His starting debut at the SCG was a cracker. Managing Frost’s minutes and allowing him to develop is the key.

    Nick Frost had a memorable year for the Wallabies. But he was almost lost to Australian rugby. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

    Jed Holloway

    Off the back of an excellent return to Super Rugby, Holloway became a regular for the Wallabies. It was just reward for a man who hadn’t lived up to the hype and had gone the long route to become a Test player.

    Holloway played predominantly in the tight for the Waratahs. With good hands and the ability to play close to the line it suited his style. He is likely to continue in the role for the Waratahs in 2023. Will that help his Test chances? Perhaps not. He will get plenty of time to shine for the Waratahs, but the subtleties of playing at blindside flanker are different than a second-rower.

    Holloway was patchy during his debut Test season. He needs to be more accurate around the breakdown in 2023 and use his big frame more effectively in 2023. Nonetheless, it was a step forward for Holloway.

    Tom Wright

    After missing selection for the opening Test in Perth against England, Wright became a mainstay for Rennie. For many, his constant selection raised eyebrows. After all, Wright was guilty of making several mistakes.

    Some could argue double standards were at play. But in Wright, Rennie sees a man with strong voice at the back and an elusiveness that could prove game-changing. Wright’s a ball-playing fullback. He runs to the line and has the ability to create things out of nothing. Is he a World Cup-winning fullback or winger?

    That remains to be seen and is a question Rennie and his coaching staff must ask themselves. There’s gallons of potential in Wright, but he’ll have to close the gap between his best and worst.

    Mark Nawaqanitawase had an unforgettable opening to his Wallabies career. Photo: Huw Fairclough/Getty Images

    Mark Nawaqanitawase

    The find of the Spring Tour. Nawaqanitawase was brilliant against Wales, scoring twice and finding space every time he touched the ball. But he was even better against Ireland. He went roving and hunting for the ball.

    He’s a big body and someone who can offload and be an aerial threat out wide. Those two elements alone offer the Wallabies something they have not had in an outside back since Israel Folau. For some, the cautionary tales of second-year syndrome could prove an obstacle for the curly-haired back to overcome.

    But, in reality, he overcame those in 2020 and 2021 because he was out of the side more than he was in it because he couldn’t tackle. He must still continue to work on his defensive work, but as he showed against Italy, particularly, his work off the ball has improved considerably.

    Jock Campbell

    Just where Campbell stands in the pecking order is somewhat still unclear given injuries and the topsy-turvy nature of 2022. But Campbell’s stocks are considerably greater heading into 2023 than they were in 2022.

    Why? He’s a Wallaby. For years there were questions as to whether Campbell was international material. Against France he showed he was. Italy was tough, but he was sick as a dog throughout the week leading into the match in Florence and had to be moved to halfback during the match when Jake Gordon was sent to the sin bin.

    Starting the season well will be essential for Campbell. He’ll be asked to jump into first-receiver more, but he must start the season at fullback ahead of Jordan Petaia, who should be on the wing. Campbell must boss the game at fullback. He can’t sit back.

    Quade Cooper’s stocks continued to grow in 2022 despite playing less than 50 minutes of international rugby. Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

    Quade Cooper

    Despite not playing a match against one of Europe’s big rugby nations since 2015, Cooper, who wore the No.10 jersey at the 2011 World Cup, is Rennie’s preferred option at fly-half. In many ways, Cooper’s stocks went up in 2022 simply by not playing.

    He played less than 50 minutes in 2022 for the Wallabies but is seen as the most important player for Rennie.

    Why? There are two reasons. Firstly, Rennie has only one consecutive matches once during his tenure in charge of the Wallabies and that came when Cooper led the side to five straight victories in 2021. Secondly, Rennie believes Cooper’s game nous and ability to carry out a plan is second to none. Yet, it’s a big bet play particularly given we don’t even know if he will be fit and sharp next year.

    Cooper has rarely got through a season since 2011, including this year where his year ended because of a ruptured Achilles. Playing second division rugby in Japan is one thing, but playing multiple matches in The Rugby Championship, including against the All Blacks, and then stringing up to seven Tests together in the World Cup is something completely different. The contact is less, defensives are barely Shute Shield standard and the work-load and pressure is incomparable. On talent alone, there is not an Australia fly-half that comes close to what Cooper can offer since Stephen Larkham. Personally, too, he seems to have matured deeply.

    Suliasi Vunivalu has a point to prove in 2023. Photo: Joe Allison/Getty Images

    Losers

    Suliasi Vunivalu

    Whatever way you spin it, Vunivalu’s stocks have gone down. He played one Test. A three-minute cameo against England.

    Given he hasn’t been sighted since, you’d have thought that he’d lost a Test for the Wallabies. Is he Test material? Perhaps not yet, but what is his ceiling? Most would argue it is high. A two-time premiership winner with the Melbourne Storm who didn’t stop scoring tries. What about for the Queensland Reds? Well, he was one of the Reds’ best during the trans-Tasman period against the Kiwi sides.

    Who saw his match against the Blues at Eden Park? Flawed as it was, he was a weapon out wide and a constant threat. He bumped away defenders like Julian Savea in his prime. Unless Eddie Jones jumps on board the Wallabies, Vunivalu is unlikely to change Rennie’s opinion of him.

    Vunivalu, if he wants it, could yet be a bolter in 2023. Staying fit is imperative. Finding confidence will flow from that. If he doesn’t start the year strong, the money Scott Johnson used to lure him across will have been flushed down the toilet.

    James O’Connor

    Re-signed in 2021, O’Connor’s redemption story was just about complete. All that was needed was for JOC to carry his excellent Super Rugby form into the Test arena and for him to lead the Wallabies to victories. But injuries plagued him and his lack of game-time was exposed at the higher level.

    That was most plainly seen against England in Brisbane, where accuracy evaded him. After Argentina put on a record score against the Wallabies, O’Connor was cut adrift. He’s not been seen since, with injury ending his year in club rugby. It was a brutal call from Rennie. Perhaps the strongest of his international tenure. Was it the right one? The jury is out.

    Rennie, after all, didn’t think O’Connor was carrying out the game-plan he wanted. Should he be considered for 2023? Yes, absolutely. O’Connor brings a wealth of experience and still has the game smarts to help him through. While many have put a line through his name, if can stay fit and lead the Reds around the park competently there could yet be one final chapter to write in his career.

    Harry Wilson is a player of huge potential but has yet to be given an extended run by Dave Rennie. Photo: Steve Christo – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

    Harry Wilson

    The Reds No.8 has every right to feel aggrieved. He was left behind from the 2021 Spring Tour to enjoy a pre-season and work on his physicality. 2022? Well, he was just left behind. For Reds fans – most fans really – it was a hard decision to swallow. Wilson’s footwork is something that has been questioned. Perhaps his effectiveness at the cleanout too. Both of those are areas where he can improve. They’re technique things.

    But Wilson would have benefitted from being able to build on elements of his game like some teammates. Wilson is a player with brilliant skills. But where did they get Scott Higginbotham? He must express himself in 2023 but he must lead, get back to more footwork at the line and start to dominate more Kiwi opponents. If anything happens to Rob Valetini, Wilson must put himself in the position to be a straight swap. Some will argue that both ball-runners can play in the same side.

    Noah Lolesio

    The Brumbies playmaker finished the year by helping spark a remarkable come-from-behind victory over Wales. The sight of seeing him leap over his teammates when the Wallabies won in Cardiff was something to take out of a bumpy year.

    And Lolesio has had more bumps in his first three years of professional rugby than most. Rugby Australia’s Overseas Selection Policy has meant the 23-year-old has been in and out of the side as veterans O’Connor, Cooper and Bernard Foley have all been given time in the No.10 jersey in an effort to lead the Wallabies to victories.

    That’s what pressure does. Some of the selections have been short-sighted. But that’s the life of an international coach at times. How Lolesio responds will be fascinating.

    “Voice” is the big thing Rennie keeps banging on about. The Wallabies want Lolesio to lead the side around. They want him to be master and commander. At the moment he’s yet to show he is capable of doing that consistently. If he leads the Brumbies to another semi-final he’ll demand selection, especially without the calming voice and presence of Irae Simone outside him.

    The Wallabies want Noah Lolesio to be master and commander. Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

    Taniela Tupou

    The ‘Tongan Thor’ started the year by saying “show me the money”. He ended it in tears, as the reality of knowing his Super Rugby campaign and, perhaps, his World Cup dream was over for 2023. The Wallabies will be desperately hoping that is not the case.

    Tupou remains a giant piece of the puzzle for the Wallabies. If he’s unavailable, it will stretch their depth immensely and be a huge dent in their hopes of going deep into the World Cup finals.

    The period off could well be beneficial for Tupou. Sometimes players don’t know how good they have it before it’s taken away from them. Tupou battled form and fitness in 2022. He struggled for the majority of the Test season, with only glimpses of his talent on display. Even before his injury, many privately were questioning whether to go all in on Tupou or let him go and hope he comes back better.

    Dave Rennie

    Like it or not, Rennie’s stocks went down in 2022. At the start of the England series, Rennie was in the process of earning a contract extension. The lid was put back on the pen at the conclusion of that series and taken off the table ahead of the Spring Tour.

    By the end of the tour, the question was – and still is – whether he will coach the Wallabies to the World Cup. The feeling has changed at RA. Rennie sensed it too, noting he didn’t expect a contract extension ahead of the final year in charge.

    Rennie can coach. No one is doubting that. He could still lead the Wallabies deep into the finals of the World Cup. When his squad returns to full strength he will have some serious talent to choose from. He has a game plan his players support. But the question is why his troops aren’t performing consistently and winning the 50-50 matches. Selection will be crucial in 2023. It’s something he has been found wanting of thus far during his first three years in charge.

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