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October 18, 2019

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Great expectations for Petaia as coach Cheika rolls the dice again

Australian coach Michael Cheika’s mantra is “bring something different” and he stuck resolutely to it yesterday when he named teenager Jordan Petaia as starting outside center for this weekend’s Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against England.

Petaia, the first player born this century to play for the Wallabies, only made his test debut in the third pool match against Uruguay having played fewer than 20 times for the Queensland Reds in a short but injury-blighted career.

He is, though, frequently described by his teammates as a “freak athlete” — the same phrase often used to describe the now departed Israel Folau — and many of them have predicted a great future for the strapping 19-year-old.

“I’ve had thoughts about Jordy since the first day he actually walked into the club,” said his Reds teammate, Samu Kerevi, who will line up alongside him in the centers against England tomorrow.

“He just had that rare talent and now he’s really refining that, becoming the player that he is. He is still writing his own story ... he’s going to be one of the greats.”

With England having moved Manu Tuilagi into the No. 12 shirt, it is Kerevi not Petaia who will directly face the powerhouse center but teammate Matt Toomua said the teenager enjoyed his defensive duties.

“I think 13 is probably his favorite position so that’s good, closer to the action, he can get some ball,” said Toomua, who is a close family friend and has known Petaia since he was a toddler. “He gets excited both sides of the ball, which is unique for a young guy — loves defense and loves attack, loves the rough stuff.”

Cheika, who was going to give Petaia his debut last year against Italy only for injury to intervene, said he had been impressed by the way the youngster carried himself. “He’s just a good young rugby player, he’s pretty relaxed but he’s very well prepared,” the coach said.

“He gives off the demeanor of being very cool and chilled but he’s very well prepared both off the field and getting ready tactically and physically. He’s got a great demeanor and I like him.”

Cheika said he had “infinite trust” in Petaia and not for a minute considered leaving him out of the team for such a big match.

“I wouldn’t be looking at the age of players at either end of the spectrum. You just go and play footy you know. Yes, it’s going to be fast and aggressive and all that type of stuff and I know that lad will rise up to that challenge. I know it.

“I’ve seen it in him, so I know he will on Saturday,” Cheika added.

Petaia became Australia’s youngest-ever World Cup player with a lively test debut — when he scored one try and made another — in the 45-10 thrashing of Uruguay two weeks ago.

But he will come under heavy fire from England, whose coach Eddie Jones has promised to defend with “brutality” as he looks to extend a six-game win streak over the Wallabies.

Petaia will be 19 years 218 days tomorrow, when he will become the second-youngest player to feature in a World Cup knockout match after Wales’s George North in 2011.

The winner in Oita tomorrow will meet either defending champion New Zealand or Ireland in the semifinals.


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