Incredible stories behind Aussie rugby’s rising stars

They’re just about to make their mark on the international rugby stage. But the coaches who blooded these six rising stars know exactly why they’re in the Wallabies squad.

These are the rookies set to turn the Wallabies from pretenders to genuine contenders at the next Rugby World Cup in 2023.

They are six of the most exciting young stars in Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squad, preparing for next weekend’s Bledisloe Cup match against the All Blacks.

Not all of them will play in that game, but they will be a key contingent in years to come as Rennie plans for the next World Cup in France.

A young Harry Wilson was a schoolboys standout.
A young Harry Wilson was a schoolboys standout.

News  tracked down the junior coaches and mentors of these six young men to find out what makes them special.

HARRY WILSON, 20-year-old backrower

Ben McCormack – coached Wilson in Year 11 and 12 at St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace High in Brisbane

“You always knew from day one there was a lot in Harry, he is one of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet in your life,” McCormack said.

“Often the challenge with someone of Harry’s height – he’s not tall enough to be a genuine second-rower, but he’s a tall backrower.

“Then you see a guy like Michael Hooper who is a lot lower to the ground, they work in that breakdown space which is minus one metre, they work really effectively and can accelerate with low body height, work well, and then accelerate out of it.

“That is always a challenge for the taller boys, so we put some stuff together during an off-season between his Year 11 and Year 12 of Harry being able to focus on his hip conditioning and physical aspects of being able to get to that height.

“It’s one thing putting these plans together, but you can always tell how dedicated they are as to whether they go away and do it when you’re not there.

“You could always tell Harry was working at it. That’s why he’s accelerated to the point he has.

Wilson is on the verge of a Wallabies jersey.
Wilson is on the verge of a Wallabies jersey.

“Once you put him into a group, he needs to be the best. And the higher he goes, the better he’ll get.

“Because of how competitive he is, he’ll find a new benchmark and do anything he can to be the best in that group.

“As soon as the Reds put him in there, I was confident he was going to work his arse off and make sure he could compete, if not be better than the boys in the group. I’m sure he’ll do the same thing now he’s been given a taste of that Wallabies squad.

“The sky is the limit for Harry.

“What makes him stand out is that he’s got points in him, there’s not a lot of players – particularly forwards – who have points in them every game.

“Harry will either score a try, set a try up or save a try in every game he plays. He has high impact moments in him, in every game of footy.

“Gregory Terrace has a long history and rivalry with Nudgee College up in Brissie, it’s the biggest game every year, and Nudgee had reign on that since I was at school, I was in the team that beat them in 2004 and they then won about 12 years in a row up until the year Harry’s team beat them.

“Harry was in Year 11, Nudgee probably had the better team, but you could see in Harry all the way through the lead-up that he wasn’t going to lose that game.

“The effort that he put in off the ball, his effort for 70 minutes, was just unbelievable. He chased every ball, he got a charge-down try running at a kicker from 20 metres away.

“He was one of the younger members of that team, but we won that day based directly off Harry’s effort, he was never going to lose that game.”

Liam Wright really came of age in his U14 season.
Liam Wright really came of age in his U14 season.
LIAM WRIGHT, 22-year-old backrower

Tremayne Cornish – coached Wright in the under-14s and had him at his boarding house at Anglican Church Grammar School

“Liam’s parents are South African (Wright was also born in Durban), so am I,” Cornish said.

“I was boarding master of Goodwin House at Churchie and Liam in his under-14 year really developed confidence. He was a small boy compared to the other boys, so he wasn’t a regular in the under-13 As at Churchie.

“But when he got to under-14s, I knew how big his father was, and he had big feet so I knew – when it comes to young boys in South Africa, you look at what they’re going to be when they’re 18, 19 years old and you coach accordingly.

“That was our philosophy and I had two fellow South Africans, Steve Pocock and James Thorpe, coach with me, so we were three South Africans with the same outlook.

“We gave Liam some responsibility and his self-confidence grew immensely. He was a boy who always wanted to be better.

“Even if he’d have a storming game and be man of the match, he is saying, ‘No sir, where can I get better?’

“Some boys just have the X-factor, they’re not happy with mediocrity, they always seek to improve and learn.

Liam Wright has that X-factor.
Liam Wright has that X-factor.

“He was very loyal and played for his teammates, and even as a young captain he had a 12-point guide he worked to like the All Blacks’ First XV principals. It gives a young leader something to aspire to, and I don’t think Liam every forgot those lessons.

“He can call me tomorrow and I’ve told him to call me Tremayne, but he will still call me ‘Sir’.

“A funny story here, Liam wasn’t a regular in the under-13 As as I said. We made him a leader and one of the regulars in under-14 As, and the boy that was dropped had played As all the way from under-11s.

“So we dropped this kid down to the Bs, and then I was on the carpet of the headmaster’s office. How can I drop this kid? He’s been at Churchie since grade one.

“Basically the accusation was made that Liam was only in the team because the three coaches are South African.

“All I said to the headmaster, ‘You know what? Time will prove me right, and when I’m proven right, I would expect a phone call from you’.

“I never got the phone call.”

Tate McDermott enjoyed great success with the Reds this year.
Tate McDermott enjoyed great success with the Reds this year.
TATE McDERMOTT, 22-year-old halfback

Dan Robotham – coached McDermott in the First XV at Sunshine State Grammar School

“Tate played for our club team, and then came to our school in Year 9, so I was pretty heavily involved with him throughout those years,” Robotham said.

“He was a really tiny fella, super competitive as he is now, that hasn’t changed.

“In the early days he didn’t really stand out, he didn’t make a lot of rep teams, wasn’t one of those guys you’d tip to be a superstar. But he always had a really good work ethic.

“We always knew he had a good running game, we did a lot of work on those subtle running lines around the ruck to get around the second defender and create space for players around him, and his footwork really improved from there.

“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now and you know the kids with the good family background, the hard work ethic, and he was one, he’d put his hand up for everything.

“Tate’s work ethic is second to none. Right through the COVID lockdown we trained together at Twin Waters Resort during the break from the Reds, he is just someone who will put in the work to get to where he needs to be.

“We went on a tour to Europe when he was in Year 11 and 12, playing in our first XV, we had an undefeated tour playing a lot of the big England schools, and by the end of that tour he was someone everyone could not stop talking about, he was untouchable at that level by that stage.

McDermott represents Sunshine Coast Grammar.
McDermott represents Sunshine Coast Grammar.

“I remember on that European tour when he was in grade 12, we were playing a team called St Edward’s from Oxford, a big rugby school, and I don’t think they’d been beaten that year.

“They fancied themselves, this was one of their last games, and pretty early on it was physical and pretty spiteful.

“There was a lot of lip, and I remember there was a late high shot on Tate and a few words exchanged, some push and shove.

“And then everything changed. You could see Tate: ‘Game on’. I think he scored four tries and just cut them to pieces.

“I see in him that mental side where he’s not going to get out-psyched by anything. And at that international level I’ve got no doubt he’s going to be successful because he is just so mentally strong.”

Noah Lolesio has created a huge impression this year.
Noah Lolesio has created a huge impression this year.
NOAH LOLESIO, 20-year-old five-eighth

Mike Wallace – coached Lolesio in the First XV at The Southport School, Brisbane

“He’s an extremely academic young man, very clever,” Wallace said.

“He came into our First XV from our under-16s program, it was a case in 2015 of picking your best 15 footballers and then finding a spot to put them in.

“Our inside centre at the time was a guy called Jai Whitbred, who plays prop for the Titans, and he was very good, so it was an opportunity for us to play Noah as a winger and then use his playmaking skills to come in off the sideline, jump into first or second receiver and add another dimension to our game.

“So he developed that early.

“In 2016 he had a major injury that curtailed him, but for his development I think it was the best thing that could have happened to him.

“The big thing that stands out about Noah is his attention to detail, his training ethic – I’ve been coaching the First XV at TSS for 11 years, and he would be in the top three kids in terms of attention to detail, personal preparation, performance. He would be there with Zane Nonggorr (Queensland Reds) and Ulupano Seutini (Bordeaux Begles). They’re three guys who were next level.

Lolesio is described as a’smart cookie’.
Lolesio is described as a’smart cookie’.

“What stood out to me and the other coaches about Noah, is that whenever he went up a level, he matched his game to that level. He’s gone from 16A to First XV and we’ve gone, ‘Let’s see what he’s got’, and he was able to play at that level.

“And then he went from First XV to Queensland Schoolboys, again same thing. From Queensland Schoolboys to Australian Schoolboys, same thing.

“And the best thing is that he went from school to club rugby, from club to NRC, from NRC to Super Rugby, he’s done the whole pathway.

“Everyone says he’s so young but he’s not, he’s gone through the whole process, it’s not like he was playing First XV last year and all of a sudden he’s in the Wallabies.

“At TSS we’re a full rounded program, where academics is a bigger part of it. Noah earned an academic scholarship, which just happened to have a rugby component to it, not the other way around.

“He is a very smart cookie, who is going to have a very long career choosing whatever he wants to do once his rugby career is finished.

“He will have a long career after that in whatever he chooses, it could be law, it could be medicine, anything else, he’s smart enough to do it.”

Len Ikitau playing for the Canberra Vikings in 2017.
Len Ikitau playing for the Canberra Vikings in 2017.
LEN IKITAU, 21-year-old centre

Shane Drahmformer Australian Sevens and Queensland player – coached Ikitau at Brisbane Boys’ College

“I was at Nudgee College and got offered a job at Brisbane Boys College, and Len arrived. He reminded me of Malakai Fekitoa from the All Blacks, similar movements, very explosive,” Drahm said.

“We know a lot of Islander players are very fast twitch, and he is so explosive.

“In my opinion, and a lot of others’, he was the best player in the GPS comp that year. He was fierce in defence, his attack was sensational.

“To be honest we lost the premiership when Len and two of our other best players got injured in the same game, it’s hard to recover from that.

“He is very coachable, he’s very humble for someone that good.

“I pushed him to the Brumbies, I know Dan McKellar very well.

“It’s fantastic that Dave Rennie has identified him, I think it’s something we haven’t done as a nation in the past, pick players on their ability and not just how long they’ve been in the side.

“At times we’ve been scared to drop players.

“So to see the likes of Lenny and Trevor Hosea picked is fantastic.

“I think Lenny has the ability to become Australia’s best centre very quickly, particularly now he’s been identified.

Ikitau could make an instant Wallabies impact.
Ikitau could make an instant Wallabies impact.

“He’s got great hands, he’s a good reader of the game, making split-second decisions.

“It was my first year at BBC and it was Lenny’s last year, I’d coached against him the year before.

“That year we played a rush defence, and to do that you need to be brave and committed.

“He wasn’t a huge kid back then, but the hits he was putting on just stood out to everyone watching.

“Running the ball, his one-to-five metre speed was just insane, and for most parts of the game that’s most crucial, that one to five metres.

“He was incredibly good at making that last second decision around jamming in defence.

“You try to keep a steady line in defence, but we had an exception to the rule, which was Lenny.

“He shot out of the line and for every 20 times he did it, only once it didn’t pay off, so as a percentage you take that every time, you’re not going to stop him when 19 out of 20 times he’s getting it right.

“Trying to explain that to schoolboys, ‘Hey, everyone has to stick to the system, but not Lenny’, that’s not an easy message to get through, but everyone appreciated it because he was so good at it.”

Hunter Paisami in action for the Harlequins club in Melbourne.
Hunter Paisami in action for the Harlequins club in Melbourne.
HUNTER PAISAMI, 22-year-old centre

Pom Simona – c oached Paisami at Harlequins and Melbourne Rebels under-20s

“In 2016 an old teammate of mine, Ben Meyer, who is the Blues’ high performance manager got in touch to say they had this really talented kid they were hoping to keep in Auckland, but the family was moving over here,” Simona said.

“Myself and Craig McGrath were coaching the Rebels 20s at the time, we had already chosen our squad, but we asked him to come down so we could have a look.

“He was a super shy kid at the beginning off the field, but when he got on the field he was a different person.

“We had Hunter a guy called Mahe Vailanu, who plays for Gordon now, and both were smaller guys playing well above their weight.

“I was used to that, because (former All Black) Sam Tuitupou was from my club back home, and I could see the similarities, so size was never going to hinder Hunter because those two were similar, small but played really big.

“He was only 17 or 18 when he started playing club rugby at Harlequins in 2017, but it was a good environment, a couple of older guys like Lloyd Johansson took him under his wing.

Paisami is making giant strides.
Paisami is making giant strides.

“We won the final that year and Hunter played fullback in the final and was outstanding, should have got man-of-the-match.

“He was in the Rebels squad but there was an incident with Hunter and Pome Fa’amausili back here, just young players being out, alcohol involved (Paisami was charged by police with affray), but (he left for Queensland) now it’s been the best thing for him.

“The amount he’s grown in the last couple of years at the Reds, to think this was his first year of Super Rugby is unbelievable.

“Other than how he’s turned things around for himself, I think a lot about that 2017 season. We were playing a team that was quite low on the ladder, but they were a big Islander team, everyone in their backline was bigger than our forwards.

“We had two 18-year-olds, one was Hunter playing No.10. The older guys were trying to rough them up; late shots, head highs, and the way he stood up to them, there was no fear there.

“Talking to their coach after, they didn’t know who he was, but he got their respect, and the respect of the peers around him.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *