Foley keen to mentor, but World Cup burns brightly in Wallabies recall

Rugby

Recalled Wallabies playmaker Bernard Foley says he isn’t sure why Australia failed to develop a group of playmakers between the past two Rugby World Cups, but that he is happy to help bring on a talented emerging fly-half cohort while also pushing for a third World Cup appearance of his own.

Foley on Sunday joined the Wallabies camp on the Gold Coast, where Australia have recommenced preparations for their Round 3 Rugby Championship against the Springboks, after having several days to lick their wounds following the 48-17 thrashing by the Pumas.

Rennie named a 35-man group last Thursday for the back-to-back Tests against the world champions, the biggest surprise being James O’Connor’s omission after he had started at fly-half in San Juan only five days earlier. But O’Connor’s demotion created the space for Foley’s return, an opportunity the 71-Test playmaker is determined to cherish after an unceremonious exit in Japan three years ago.

“I suppose I always hoped and thought about it, but I never thought the opportunity would come back up, especially leaving, going overseas and knowing that the eligibility laws have the ability to change,” Foley told reporters on Monday.

“I sort of had to be content with not getting the opportunity again when I left in 2019 so to now get the opportunity to be back here in the squad and get to wear the colours, yeah pretty grateful and I’m excited about having that second opportunity.”

Foley’s recall has sparked heated debate in Australian rugby circles, with not everyone thrilled the Wallabies have turned to a 32-year-old, and others pondering what happened to a group of playmakers that should have been brought through between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups.

Instead, Australia now have an age gap of 10 years between the 22-year-old Noah Lolesio, Foley and O’Connor at 32, and the injured Quade Cooper at 33.

Names such as Jack Debreczeni [29], Mack Mason [26] and Jack McIntyre [28] have been tossed about, while the loss of the third tier National Rugby Championship, fractured junior pathway programs, and of course the global player market have been tossed up as reasons why that group in the middle may not have pushed on.

Rennie has looked to avoid history repeating itself after he added 23-year-old Waratahs pivot Ben Donaldson to the Wallabies squad in a training capacity only, perhaps with a view to debuting him later in the year on the spring tour.

Foley’s 71 Tests worth of experience will certainly be a bonus for Lolesio, who is expected to start at the Adelaide Oval on Saturday, while the veteran No. 10 said he was eager to offer as much playmaker intel as possible even if he couldn’t explain what had happened to the Aussie group between himself and the likes of his new teammates.

“I suppose there is a bit of a void there of players through that middle section,” Foley said. “I’m not really sure and that’s probably not for me to talk about, but how we can develop these young guys now is really exciting.

“I’ve done a couple of sessions with Ben Donaldson and Tane Edmed [at the Waratahs], now in here with Noah, I’m really excited because I see these guys as immensely talented. They’ve got the composure, they’ve got the mentality and probably the rugby IQ to run teams they just need that experience and that time in the saddle to really understand their craft, to learn, master their craft and be able to steer teams around.”

Having met Lolesio for the first time on Sunday, Foley said he didn’t think the youngster’s confidence had been dented by his demotion for the San Juan defeat, nor the other instances when he had been handed the Wallabies reins only for them to be pulled away from him once more.

“It’s difficult just being young and being in these environments,” Foley said. “But I’m really impressed coming in yesterday, meeting him, just how composed and confident he is. I don’t think he’s been knocked around or anything like that. I think he’s a guy who can come in and call the shots and I’m really excited to look forward to working with him and just seeing how he sees the game and how he’s going to run.

Foley confirmed Rennie had first sounded him out about a return to Test rugby after the French series last year but for a variety reasons he did not feel it appropriate to rejoin the squad at that juncture.

It could have been a decision that brought down the curtain on his Wallabies career once and for all, but the season-ending injury to Cooper and O’Connor’s own struggles with form and injury have thrown open the door for the Sydneysider to pursue a third World Cup appearance.

A lack of recent playing time – Foley did seek out an opportunity with Sydney University but the timing wasn’t right – means he is unlikely to feature against the Springboks, at least in Adelaide, but he could well come into the reckoning against the All Blacks; the spring tour however could throw up similar problems for him as it did for the Japanese-contracted players last year.

Still, Foley admits the chance to make amends for the disappointing 2019 tournament is a motivating factor to channel his efforts into making the Wallabies squad for France next year.

“It’s [World Cup] definitely on the radar. As I said before, there is a finite amount of time but it is on the radar,” Foley said. “But I’m literally just in here, day one trying to connect with the guys, understand how they want to play.

“There’s a lot of footy, a lot of time between now and then, I know it’s the cliche, but I’m literally taking it day by day, just being in amongst squad.”

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