Where there's a Will
POOL C IRELAND v AUSTRALIA:IT’S A point made before but it’s worth repeating this week of all weeks. Think back to David Kirk’s role as captain of the inaugural winners from New Zealand, and with every World Cup champions since they have usually boasted the world’s best scrumhalf at the time. The next few weeks will tell a tale, but Will Genia is beginning to look the part.
Be it Nick Farr-Jones, Joost van der Westhuizen, George Gregan, Matt Dawson and most definitely Fourie du Preez, the Kirk example has been generally emulated. Much to his own embarrassment, the comparisons with the 119-times capped, Zimbabwean-born Gregan are invariably the most commonplace, with Genia once saying that mention of him in the same sentence was “a joke”.
Yet almost two years ago, when Genia was still only 11 caps into his career, Gregan said of him: “He’s got a lot more skills than me. He’s bigger, stronger and he can kick a lot further. I’m a dinosaur compared to him. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. I like the way he plays. He has time and space to do things, which is a sign of a real quality player. He’s only 22 and has heaps of improvement in him. That’s what’s exciting.”
Genia attributes his modesty to his parents, with his father warning him to not let the hype get to him.
The 23-year-old was born in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where his father, Kilroy Genia, was a justice and foreign affairs minister in the Papua New Guinea cabinet, and his older brother, Frankie, played Test matches for the PNG Pukpuks, while younger brother Nigel is a Queensland Schools rep and was a contender for Australia’s Under-20 World Cup squad.
Genia hadn’t played rugby until he arrived in Australia and boarded in Brisbane Boys College, where he first played with Quade Cooper at under-15 level, and emerged from obscurity when he made his Super Rugby debut when called into the Queensland Reds squad in 2007 by Eddie Jones without previously having played a senior club game. He was playing Colts/Under-21 rugby at the time.
Winning his first cap as a replacement against the All Blacks in the 2009 Tri-Nations opener, he became first choice on their November tour that year, and this year has been pivotal in the Queensland Reds’ Super 15 success and Australia’s Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations successes.
Although modest, Genia is also strikingly assured. That much was evident in the composed and considered manner he moved through a litany of media engagements in their downtown Auckland hotel yesterday, when also doing a “Little and Large” television interview with room-mate Radike Samo (whom he sometimes jokingly calls dad, with Samo admitting he reminds him of his nine-year-old son, who is virtually the same height).
He evidently packs a helluva punch in his 5ft 9in frame. Pound for pound he is one of the strongest players in the Wallabies team, and is famed for being able to bench press 172kg, more than double his own body weight of 85kg.
Come the big moments in the big games and he regularly comes up with the big plays. In the Super 15 final in Brisbane against the Crusaders, he did not have an especially good game, kicking an incredible amount of ball, but turned the match on its head with a 60-metre solo try.
In the Tri-Nations decider just over two weeks ago against the All Blacks in Brisbane, he made two clean breaks. Both were with his favoured left-to-right runs, though he can be just as lethal when sliding from right to left.
On both occasions the second defensive pillar was fooled into drifting on, thereby leaving the space for Genia to beat Keven Mealamu, no slouch when defending close in, on his outside left shoulder. Both led to tries, one by Genia himself.
Australia have the youngest squad in this tournament, and against Ireland on Saturday will come up against the oldest, yet their trust in each other on the pitch is palpable.
“Definitely,” says Genia. “There is a lot of trust in the way that we play; we back each other and I think that’s the most exciting part about it, the fact that we just back ourselves to play how we want to play. You obviously have to adjust things based on circumstances and situations in games and the weather and what not, but for the best part of it we just go out there and back ourselves.”
In particular, the understanding between himself and the extravagantly-gifted Quade Cooper is instinctive.
“We’ve been lucky enough to play with each other for a long time now, since schoolboy rugby, under-15s actually. That partnership has developed and that only comes with time together, and I guess we’ve been blessed with that.”
Ask Adam Ashley-Cooper what it’s like to play outside Genia and Cooper, and he says, laughing, “easy”, and then adds: “It’s enjoyable and easy.” Particularly off turnover ball, or in broken field, Genia and Cooper come alive, recognising in an instant that the defence isn’t set and immediately exploring where the space is.
You could see that when Genia moved turnover ruck ball from underneath the Australian posts in the first half against Italy, putting Cooper through a gap. The outhalf ran to half-way and weighed up his options as a host of backs arrived in support. But as Cooper side-stepped recovering defenders, Anthony Faingaa over-ran him and collided with Sergio Parisse to give the Italians a relieving penalty. Faingaa, Cooper and Kurtley Beale were all disgusted. They don’t often butcher chances of an 80-metre, seven-point turnover like that.
Whenever Genia and Cooper switch to “on”, everyone else has to swiftly jump on board. “Absolutely, and that’s the best thing,” says Ashley-Cooper. “You want to be around these guys, these creative players, and it’s just important to support them. I guess without the support, they wouldn’t be able to create too much but if we’re there supporting them that’s where they do their most damage.”
“I could be a little bit biased,” adds Cooper, “because he wears the same jersey and plays in the same team as me, but I consider him to be one of the best half-backs (scrumhalves) in the world, especially currently.”
The Wallabies are all about themselves. Asked if he saw Ireland’s performance against the USA, Genia admitted: “No, we had a pool recovery session so we haven’t seen too much of them. They got pushed by the USA but came home with a late surge, so that’s as much as I know, to be honest (pause) without being disrespectful,” he added with a smile.
“I think they’re a side that can play the traditional Northern Hemisphere style,” he added, when pressed, “but also they like to play with the ball as well, guys like Brian O’Driscoll. They’ve got a great back line, they can play with the ball in hand as well so they’ll test us in a lot of areas. I think the biggest thing for us is we’ve just got to focus on what we do well and do that, and try to impose that on them, both in attack and defence.”
Not for the first time in treks to the Southern Hemisphere, when Genia and others cited Ireland’s great players the one name they conjured was you know who. By contrast, Genia looked close to bemused with mention of Ireland’s three scrumhalves, double checking that Isaac Boss had played here in his native New Zealand.
Winning the Tri-Nations, Genia said, “gives you a bit more belief in that what you’re doing is right and continuing with that along that path. It gives you that belief but also the confidence to back yourself in what you’re doing.”
It also leaves them nicely primed, for as Genia also conceded: “We’re lucky that we get to play top sides, the top three, in the world in South Africa and New Zealand throughout the year. Coming into a World Cup tournament, that obviously stands you in good stead.
“We’re even better for the fact we got to play Italy, who tested us and are a good side. So all those games, everything, prepares us well for this game. It is, I guess, the pivotal game in the pool and we’re just looking forward to it.”
With, it seems, confidence oozing from every pore.