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Failed high-performance and mixed messages: Wallabies' playmaker crisis laid bare

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Wallabies deserve praise for concussion management (2:37)

The Wallabies deserve praise for their management of concussion, but recent suggestions they are about to end their Bledisloe drought were poorly timed. (2:37)

Quade Cooper's Achilles injury appears to be the one problem the Wallabies have no answer for as the Rugby World Cup creeps ever closer and coach Dave Rennie again looks to the past for a solution at No. 10.

But a bigger problem perhaps lies within Australian rugby's inability to sufficiently develop a playmaker between the past two global showpieces. Between a 22-year-old Noah Lolesio and a 32-year-old James O'Connor, the cupboard is bare.

Rennie on Thursday went back to the well once more, bringing in 32-year-old Bernard Foley to replace O'Connor in a 35-man squad to face the Springboks in Australia's next two Rugby Championship Tests.

The Wallabies coach said O'Connor was heartbroken by his demotion, a banishing that has now placed serious questions on whether he can reach a third World Cup in September next year.

"I won't give you all those details but as you'd imagine he's pretty devastated," Rennie told reporters. "He's desperate to be a Wallaby. He's going to ensure that he keeps himself in good nick. As we know based on injuries this year, opportunity could be around the corner.

"We'll get together with him prior to the squad assembling just to sit down and go through his game. Give him clarity around the shifts we need to see if he gets another opportunity with us.

"He's worked to get himself in really good shape. So the issue from the weekend wasn't physical. He's convinced us that he can implement the plan that we want. It's difficult to do it when you're not in the squad. Should he get another opportunity with us he needs to highlight that he's made some shifts."

At 32, Foley will become the third 30+ player Rennie has turned to should he earn selection in either one of the two Tests against the world champions. O'Connor had been the Kiwi's first choice No. 10 in 2020, before Cooper made a stunning recall last year, establishing himself as the man to lead Australia to France next year.

However unlikely that may have been before his recall, so measured and composed were Cooper's performances in 2021 that he very quickly made himself near-indispensable.

But the warning signs in his 33-year-old body bubbled to the surface when Cooper injured his calf in the warm-up for Australia's first Test with England, a soft tissue issue that would scrub him from the entire series.

Still, he was able to overcome that injury and take his place on Australia's plane for Argentina and then at No. 10 for the first Test against the Pumas. In the 48 minutes Cooper was on the park in Mendoza, he very much looked like the player that spearheaded five straight Wallabies wins in 2021.

But then disaster struck, and the confirmation that no matter how well one looks after himself, at 33 years or age, the body can give out at any moment. In Cooper's case it was his Achilles.

And so, Rennie turned once more to O'Connor, believing Australia needed experience in a backline that had an untested No. 12 and a back three that had played only one Test together. O'Connor was unable to command the Wallabies in the fashion Australia required and, along with some simple defensive and kick reception errors, the result was a record 48-17 hammering at the hands of the Pumas.

But to expect O'Connor to come in and run the ship off the back of one error-strewn cameo off the bench against England, when he had barely featured through the back half of Super Rugby Pacific before that, was foolhardy.

It also meant the Wallabies were playing with a Brumbies-Reds-Waratahs combination at 9, 10 and 12, when the selection of Lolesio, who had started all three Tests against England after Cooper's late withdrawal, would have at least had the familiarity of playing all his Super Rugby alongside White in Canberra.

If Rennie was after cohesion in San Juan, he wasn't going to get it in the inside back trio he opted for.

And what message did that send to Lolesio? Suddenly he was the No. 3 No. 10, having done little wrong against England, aside perhaps from drifting too deep in Sydney and a persistent desire to chase the space out wide.

"We were very tempted to start Noah in the second Test but we thought that we needed to find out where James was at and to give him an opportunity to play at 10," Rennie said of Lolesio. "And so you can see sort of based on selection [of this squad] where we see Noah.

"So he's a strong chance to be involved next week, he's worked really hard on the little areas that he needed to make shifts beyond the England series and, as we said earlier, he's a good kid and he's played all of big rugby for a young man, just about all his Tests have been against the top four sides in the world.

"But we definitely feel he's going to be an excellent international 10, so you'll see him feature during this series."

Now, Lolesio's development has been further clouded by the recall of Foley, who Rennie says he first touched base with ahead of the Rugby Championship last year.

Foley is the Wallabies' fifth Giteau Law selection of the year, a situation that could have only arisen through the injuries to Cooper or Samu Kerevi - though there are questions about whether Rennie has already found a loophole in a policy that said only three overseas based players could be named per tournament or series.

A Super Rugby champion with the Waratahs in 2014 and the man who spearheaded Australia's charge to the 2015 World Cup final, including one memorable performance against England, Foley says he has rediscovered his love for rugby while away in Japan.

He finished the 2022 League One season having scored 131 points having played just eight games as his Kubota Spears were knocked out in the semifinals.

And given Cooper's sensational return in 2021, from the second division to boot, it would be foolish to completely rule out a player of Foley's experience from making a similar impact over the next few weeks.

But what message is it sending to Lolesio, and for that matter youngsters Ben Donaldson and Tane Edmed, one of whom at least it seems will link up with the Wallabies in a training capacity only?

On the face of it, it's hard to see it any other way than "you're simply not ready". Lolesio, at least, must be a tad confused, not just for how he has been shuffled about in recent times, but also dating back to last year's spring tour. How he would have benefited from three Tests against England, Scotland and Wales.

Instead he finds himself unsure whether he has the genuine backing of a Wallabies coaching staff that is itself uncertain about exactly what it wants at No. 10, cursing the injury to Cooper, so too a high performance unit that didn't do its job between the last two World Cups.

And so the Wallabies are racing the clock ahead of France next year, devoid of answers in the most important position of all.