Has Australia finally produced a world-class fly-half in Bernard Foley, a 10 who could go on to share the same revered status as great Wallabies playmakers such as Stephen Larkham, Mark Ella and Michael Lynagh?
That’s the burning question for Australian supporters – and Welsh ones too, no doubt - heading into this weekend’s quarterfinals-defining clash against Wales. Was Foley’s stunning 28-point performance against England a flash in the pan, a good player merely having an evening where everything went his way, or was it something far more significant like, say, Daniel Carter’s astonishing career-defining turn against the British and Irish Lions in 2005?
Before Foley’s showing against England, it’s hard to recall a more complete fly-half performance in recent times, and certainly not one on such a big stage with high stakes against top tier opposition, the host nation of the Rugby World Cup no less. Finding a Test quality fly-half has been a conundrum for the Wallabies in the post-Larkham era, so much so they actually picked a winger, James O’Connor, at 10 against the 2013 British and Irish Lions. The Australian selectors have at various times tried Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and, to a lesser extent, Matt Toomua. But none has been able to produce anything like Foley’s Twickenham spectacle.
So is Foley – nicknamed ‘Iceman’ for his ability to make clutch kicks at goal – the real deal, or a one-hit wonder? And bear in mind he only started playing fly-half for the Waratahs in 2013. Two years prior, he was a specialist sevens player before playing at full-back and second five-eighths in his debut Super season in 2011. And Foley’s selection as Australia’s starting 10 was far from assured coming into the World Cup following an error-strewn game against the Otago Highlanders in the Super Rugby semi-final in Sydney in late June.
One man ideally placed to ponder the vexed Wallabies fly-half issue is Foley’s backs coach at the NSW Waratahs since 2013, former 19-Test All Black Daryl Gibson (he was recently appointed head coach for the 2016 season to replace Michael Cheika). Gibson has no doubt Foley’s virtuoso display against England would, in time, be seen as a clear demarcation point, a line-crossing where Foley finally realised he belonged at Test level, and, more importantly perhaps, everyone else agreed. “Absolutely, he’s truly arrived on the international stage now with that performance,” Gibson said in an interview with Guardian Sport. “The England game was the one when he realised ‘hey man, I can compete at his level’. It was pretty flawless in terms of his accuracy and general play, his ability to be a threat with the ball, you know all of those key things you look for in a five-eighth.”
Gibson, who played for the All Blacks from 1999 to 2002, said quite often players had a real-time awareness of their career-defining “breaking through” moments, with the best players going on to play with an ease and confidence that previously came only sporadically. “I think there’s definitely an awareness there, yes. You’re climbing up the ladder and up the levels and then all of a sudden you start feeling comfortable, and then you have a break-out game. That’s what happened to Bernard. It happens at different times for different players in their career, and he would have known that’s what happened to him last week. I’d imagine he’d be feeling very confident now, and so he should be. He would have gained a lot of belief in his own ability that he can be a world-class player.”
More importantly for Australian rugby, though, Gibson believes the long-running question of who is the Wallabies’ best fly-half, Foley or Cooper, has finally been put to rest. “Perhaps many people were saying maybe Cooper was the answer, but I think Bernard answered a lot of the questions rugby writers and commentators had been asking about him. The key thing is he backs it up. That’s the biggest thing, but I have no doubt he will off the back of the confidence he’d now have. This could be the start of something really good for him.”
In fact, Gibson doubts if Foley was the only one to have benefitted from the England match. “For all the players, a victory of that type given the context of a brutal pool, knocking out the host nation, and in a really big match - when you get through those circumstances, it gives you a great deal of confidence. I’d imagine the Australian team are really starting to believe they can go all the way to the final,” he said.
Indeed, should Australia beat Wales, a path to the final would be that much easier for the Wallabies given a likely quarter-final opponent of either Scotland or Japan, and the All Blacks on the other side of the draw. Wales, though, would be eyeing the same route to glory, and in Warren Gatland they have a master coach who knows how to beat the Wallabies, as he did with the British and Irish Lions two years ago. An intriguing contest awaits.