When the Junior Wallabies went within one point of a maiden under-20s World Cup last year, the hope was that Australian rugby was on the cusp of a golden new generation.
A historic seven-year drought-breaking 18-14 win by Australia’s Schoolboys over New Zealand across the ditch reinforced the feeling the pathways were working and there was light at the end of a 17-year Bledisloe Cup black tunnel.
Now, two of the most exciting prospects in Australian rugby, Isaac Lucas and Harry Hockings, as well as a third established young Wallaby, Izack Rodda, are all but guaranteed to head overseas after their contracts were terminated by opting not to sign Rugby Australia’s player pay cuts during COVID-19.
Yet last year’s Junior Wallabies captain, Fraser McReight, who has been picked in Dave Rennie’s Players of National Interest squad despite playing just 121 minutes of Super Rugby, believes the future remains bright.
“We have Scott Johnson, who’s pretty much new as director of rugby, three new Wallaby coaches and we have pretty much a brand new younger generation coming through. I played with the under-20s, but even the 18s, I think Australian rugby’s definitely in the right direction,” McReight told Wide World of Sports.
“Obviously, we have a new interim CEO and a new chairman-elect too, so there’s lots of changes happening as well, but that’s not a negative thing, I think change is good.
“That’s why I’m stoked to be a part of Australian rugby.
“I get to see the next generation of awesome footballers hopefully bring glory back to Australian rugby and then watch the code recover from where it is right now to back to where it was. That’s what I aspire to.”
There’s no guarantee that success at junior level brings riches when the world is watching on the international stage, but a look at England’s pathway is a fair pointer.
From 2013 to 2018, England made every final at the under-20s tournament and the crux of those players, including Maro Itoje and Tom Curry, were influential figures in their nation’s run to the World Cup final in 2019.
At the same time, Australia’s failures at junior level – having previously not made the final since 2010 – came home to roost in 2019 as the Wallabies suffered their worst World Cup campaign, crashing out in the quarter-finals.
It’s why the loss of Lucas and Hockings in particular have felt like a dagger in the hearts of Australian rugby fans.
McReight admitted that it felt “different not seeing their faces” at training over the past week, but understood “why they did it” and opted not to sign the 60 per cent average pay cuts negotiated between the Rugby Union Players’ Association and Rugby Australia.
But in an encouraging sign for the future of the code in Australia, which still doesn’t have a broadcast rights deal beyond the year, the talented openside flanker said there was no way he was planning on abandoning Australian rugby.
“I want to stick around because I haven’t made any mark in Queensland and Australian rugby yet,” McReight said.
“I’ve got a long journey, I’m very young and I like to think that I’ve got a long tenure in the game and I’ve got a lot of proving to do in Australian rugby.
“If I can stick around and help them through this tough period like everyone else and do my bit, that’d be awesome.
“I want to see Queensland back to their winning ways and hopefully that transfers into higher honours and success at the international stages because that’s what, as a young kid, I’ve always aspired to do.
“That’s definitely my ambition and why I’ve stayed here and wanted to do that.
“I’ve still got fantastic mates and an awesome team to be a part of, the culture that Thorny’s (Brad Thorn) created at the Reds has been one that I want to stick around and make my mark in international rugby because I know I can.”
At one of the most turbulent times in Australian rugby history, a time when a CEO has fallen on her sword and a $14 million World Rugby loan has helped keep the game afloat Down Under, McReight’s voice is an important one because he represents the next generation.
The modest 21-year-old is only starting to make his mark in the game, but his leadership qualities have been noticed by all, including his Reds coach Thorn, who was instrumental in making McReight captain of Brisbane City last year.
However, while leadership is something McReight enjoys, neither is expectation getting to his head or the notion that he has a greater role in influencing the choices of his teammates.
“Do I think my voice counts for more? No I don’t,” he said.
“Just because it wasn’t the fact that I was captain that we did so well last year, we had amazing players and coaching and just a good culture with the Junior Wallabies; that’s why we did so well.
“What I’ve done here in Super Rugby level is nothing. I’ve played seven games and just over a game and a half of minutes, so I’ve got a lot more to do to even start speaking.
“I’m at the bottom of the herd.
“I think most of the boys know what I’m capable of but I’ve got a lot to prove.”
McReight’s comments come off the back of his PONI and Reds teammate’s, Tate McDermott, who told The Australian he wasn’t “walking away from Australian rugby” despite the code’s dark state of affairs.
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