As the heavy handed attitude of referees and TMOs remains a serious distraction, a glaring problem at the core of Australian rugby continues to be overlooked. If not rectified, it will see the Wallabies' 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign suffer a devastating derailment- possibly in the Socceroos in Russia category. Adios before the quarters possibly?
Australian rugby is seriously kidding itself if it believes it can successfully navigate the next 16 months with only one prominent playmaker. The June international series against Ireland and last weekend's Super Rugby round emphasised the dearth of capable No.10s in the Australian provincial ranks.
There's Bernard Foley... and there's Bernard Foley. That's basically it- which is so damning considering No.10 is the most important position on the rugby field. Countries like New Zealand have an abundance of playmakers to choose from to be their on-field director. The Australian barrel is sadly barren.
Adding to the concern is that Foley is somewhat fragile, and as shown during the Ireland Test series can be swamped and contained, curbing his impact on a major fixture.
After overcoming recent serious concussion problems, Foley has had his fair share of good matches, but also a string of underwhelming performances, which saw Ireland's Johnny Sexton comfortably win the Test No.10 battle last month. Overall Sexton was authoritative, gladly taking over the on-field leadership role from Rory Best who did not tour, while Foley, as soon as his team lacked consistent possession, became a mere passenger.
But Foley again showed his capabilities when he stepped up as Waratahs captain in place of the injured Michael Hooper last Friday night, and guaranteed their triumph over the Rebels by getting on the front foot and dominating the midfield. It was a reminder of his fine skills, which are often under-estimated due to form fluctuations.
However before that game, not even Foley would admit he was playing to the standard required of a Test certainty. Australia's most accomplished pivot Mark Ella wrote in his newspaper column in The Australian last week that for the next Test against the All Blacks, Foley should be on the bench, and Kurtley Beale moved from the centres to No 10.
Admittedly Ella wrote that before the Rebels match, but he has a valid point. Foley has often not been assertive enough, especially with opposing teams regularly focusing their attack in the area around himself and Beale. Not helping the situation is that Beale's defence has been flawed this season due to an obsession in wanting to hug and tackle opponents far too high. It is the characteristic of someone who may be playing injured.
Unfortunately there is no selection pressure being applied on Foley, and so he can get away with fluctuating efforts. Last weekend was the opportunity for someone in the Australian provinces to step up, and say 'hey look at me. I'm a valid alternative.'
The promising up-and-comer Hamish Stewart had first chance for the Reds against the Blues in Auckland. However the moment was wasted, as it was a confused performance, with the 20-year-old's kicking game again letting him down. He was replaced after only 46 minutes.
Maybe he wasn't helped by referee Egon Seconds and Ben Skeen, the most infuriating of television match officials who is clearly in need of an extended break, bewildering all with several ridiculous decisions that saw the Reds at one stage down to 13 men. Let's hope Stewart, not Skeen gets more opportunities.
Jono Lance took over and while reasonable, he is not No.10 Test quality. Nor is Reece Hodge at the Rebels, who performs like a centre/ fullback/ winger made to play in another spot. He is a capable finisher further out the line, but lacks the authority to control the midfield. At times, the Rebels suffered against the Waratahs because Hodge appeared flustered and uncomfortable.
Blame the Rebels coaching staff for that. They persisted far too long with the underperforming Jack Debreczeni at No.10 this year, have tried to turn Hodge into a pivot, while Jack Maddocks, who we keep hearing is a fine five-eighth, is being selected elsewhere.
It's time the Rebels tried Maddocks at No 10. How many times do they have to be told? But it looks as if they won't. So a chance to give Australian rugby an alternative has been allowed to let slip because of blinkered vision at provincial level. A centralised system would fix that up straight away.
Christian Lealiifano's return for the Brumbies after his fight with leukaemia is the most courageous of personal stories, but he is nearing the end of his playing career. While he remains determined, his days as a Wallabies playmaker now appear to be behind him. And Brad Thorn is not going to play Quade Cooper. End of story- especially as Michael Cheika isn't Cooper's No 1 fan either.
So it looks as if it is going to be Foley. But to have any hope in Japan next year, there must be at least two viable No.10 alternatives in case Foley loses his way or is injured. At the moment, there's none. Far from it.
And if he is to be a 2019 World Cup force, Foley's success rate against the big opponents must improve. He's only been involved in two wins and a draw in 12 Bledisloe Cup matches for a piddly trans-Tasman success rate of 20.8 percent. His record against Ireland and England is worse. Just one in five against Ireland (20%) and one in eight (12%) against England. His overall success rate from 58 Tests is 52.6 percent; just above coach Michael Cheika's 52.1 percent from 25 wins and two draws in 48 Tests.
Hardly comforting figures.