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Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

Green and golden generation

Will Genia in action against New Zealand
Will Genia has risen from Queensland reserve to Australia regular

By Mike Henson

After bruising defeats in their first two Tri Nations games of the season, you might have expected Australia's coach Robbie Deans to steady a youthful backline with some experienced heads.

Instead injured captain Stirling Mortlock was replaced with 19-year-old full-back James O'Connor before 21-year-old Will Genia, who had struggled for a start at provincial side Queensland at the start of the season, made the scrum-half spot his own.

By the end of the tournament Australia's starting backline had an average age of 23 with Matt Giteau (a relative veteran at 27) looking to the likes of Lachie Turner (22) and Berrick Barnes (23) outside him.

Now, going into this autumn's battles with England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the emphasis on youth is being accelerated.

It might contrast with England manager Martin Johnson's recall of three 30-plus World Cup winners for the two sides' clash at Twickenham on Saturday, but former Australia coach Bob Dwyer believes the youngsters have earned their shot.


"Genia is a good player. He is quick, he's got good vision and he's very alert to the opportunity to make a break or a half-break," he told BBC Sport.

"He is extremely strong and tackles very well. He'll pick a big forward up and drive him backwards. He is obviously only going to get better and I think this tour will be a very important one for him.

"Barnes is a huge loss for the Wallabies [the centre has been ruled out of the tour with a knee injury]. He has continued to develop over the past two years and is pretty much a world-class player now.

"And Turner is a talent without a doubt. He has outstanding pace, very good skills and is keen to chance his arm."

Dwyer still has doubts over O'Connor's defence and kicking, but a hat-trick of tries on his first international start against Italy in June displayed the elusive running that has won the touring party's youngest member plenty of fans.

"As a boy at school, James O'Connor was a freak," says Pat Langtry, director of coaching for Australian Schools who coached O'Connor in his country's Schoolboys side in 2007.

Quade Cooper
Cooper will make his eighth Test appearance against England

"He was probably the most gifted player I have ever been involved with in terms of understanding space and how to attack or preserve it.

"His decision-making and ability to act on what was in front of him was just extraordinary. I don't know how you explain that skill level at that age."

But the two talents of which perhaps most is expected have only a handful of Test appearances between them.

Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper, playing above themselves at 16 and 17 respectively, were the cornerstones of the last Australian Schoolboys side to visit the UK in 2005.

With Beale at fly-half and Cooper at full-back they beat an England Under-19 side featuring Danny Cipriani, Dominic Waldouck and Jordan Turner Hall 24-12 on an atrocious December night in Gloucester.

"We had two great ballplayers either side of the scrum and Quade had a very innate understanding with Kurtley," said Langtry who lead the trip.

"I remember one time, before we went on that 2005 tour, we were waiting for a team photo up in Ballymore.

James O'Connor, 19, Full-back
Kurtley Beale, 20, Fly-half/Centre
Rob Horne, 20, Centre
Quade Cooper, 21, Fly-half/Centre
Will Genia, 21, Scrum-half
Lachie Turner, 22, Winger/Full-back
Berrick Barnes, 23, Fly-half/Centre

"The two of them picked up the ball and a few of us were sitting there saying, "have a look at this".

"Kurtley would pass the ball to Quade who would catch it one-handed and flick it back to him and Kurtley would catch it with his wrong hand and then flick it back around his head.

"The longer it went the further apart they got and guys were just sitting there saying, "How can kids of 16, 17 do something like that, and so skilfully as well?""

On his return to Kingsholm in a 36-5 win over Gloucester on Tuesday, Cooper scored one try and had a hand in the other four, forcing Deans to pick him for the match against England.

After appearing for the New South Wales Waratahs at 18, a series of injuries has seen Beale slip behind his team-mate, and he will have to wait for his full international bow in the northern hemisphere. But Dwyer believes the younger of the pair has a special edge.

"Coming through school there was huge hype about him. He is a big kid, he plays at over 90kgs already, he has massive skill and vision and at school had great pace," he said.

"Maybe because of the weight he has put on he doesn't seem to quite the outstanding pace he had at school, but that might return.

"He is one I'd push. I really like a guy who, if he reaches his potential, can take me to a different level and Beale is one of those. It wouldn't surprise me if he came through on this tour at all."

The memory of Mathew Tait's disastrous debut as an 18-year-old and the errors and over-exposure that eroded Cipriani's game last season may have something to do with England's contrasting reluctance to blood so many players so early.

Bath winger Matt Banahan and Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care at 22 are the most youthful of the backs in a matchday side blown open by a spate of injuries.

Tim Horan
A 21-year-old Tim Horan in action in the 1991 World Cup semi-final

Dwyer played his part in a national tradition giving debuts to Tim Horan and Jason Little as 19-year-olds in 1989, two years before winning the World Cup with the same centre partnership.

The former Leicester and Bristol coach now runs his own coaching workshops and believes selectors have never had more reason to give youth its head.

"It has always been the policy in Australia, perhaps more so than in any other major rugby-playing nations, that we have chosen players at a younger age," he said.

"You can go all the way back to Phil Hawthorne in the sixties who won his cap at 18.

"But in the professional age more players are coming through at a younger age.

"They come on so quickly both in skills and physicality with the full-time training so those opportunities are even more now than they were then."

Deans has certainly given plenty of chances. And with much of the rugby world's attention focused on a 30-year-old number 10 opposite, Saturday is another outing in which his young charges can polish their growing reputations.

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see also
England pick Wilkinson & Thompson
04 Nov 09 |  Rugby Union
New Zealand 33-6 Australia
19 Sep 09 |  Rugby Union
Australia 21-6 South Africa
05 Sep 09 |  Rugby Union
Australia 25-32 South Africa
29 Aug 09 |  Rugby Union
Australia 18-19 New Zealand
22 Aug 09 |  Rugby Union
South Africa 29-17 Australia
08 Aug 09 |  Rugby Union
New Zealand 22-16 Australia
18 Jul 09 |  Rugby Union
England 14-28 Australia
15 Nov 08 |  English
Wales 11-9 England
05 Feb 05 |  Internationals
1991: Wallabies pip England
24 Sep 03 |  History

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