Joseph Suaalii had a bright rugby future; Jordan Petaia has shown his wares

When the Wallabies trudged off Oita Stadium on Oct. 19 last year, there was very little for Australian rugby to be enthused about.

The team's Rugby World Cup campaign had ended in one horrific final outing, albeit a result the many touring fans had feared, if not expected, at the hands of Eddie Jones' England.

One by one, the Wallabies players trudged through the mixed zone, stopping only if you caught their eye amid the excitable Fleet Street journalists waiting to bask in English triumph.

Knowing this was the last time he would speak to reporters in his capacity as a Wallaby, scrum-half Will Genia walked over to ESPN and offered a brief positive assessment of what the future could hold for Australia after an embarrassing quarterfinal exit.

"The only person you've got to look at is Jordan [Petaia] - look how good was he, he was amazing," Genia said. "Nineteen years old, [he] was one of the best players on the field, not just for us, but for both teams."

After the whirlwind contract saga that has engulfed 16-year-old talent Joseph Suaalii - who now appears set to follow through on his original plan to re-sign with South Sydney - it was easy to forget just what the Wallabies already had up their sleeve in Petaia. The 19-year-old Queenslander's performance that afternoon in Japan was, as Genia said, as good as any player's, his first start at outside centre coming after only just two Tests earlier in the tournament on the wing.

2020 was supposed to be Petaia's year but after an already difficult run with injury in both 2018 and 2019, the youngster injured his shoulder in a training run ahead of the Reds' clash with the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.

As Wayne Bennett declares himself the best man to bring Suaalii through to the top grade, the master NRL coach would be wise to review Petaia's journey as a cautionary tale. And as Australian rugby supporters curse the behaviour of those in the NRL media, they would be better served by investing that energy in Petaia and crossing all their collective fingers and toes that he remains injury free through the remainder of this year.

Petaia is the outside back Wallabies coach Dave Rennie can build his attack around in the run to the next World Cup, and his retention will surely be one of Rennie's priorities now that Rugby Australia's contract freeze has been lifted.

The Reds youngster did it all that afternoon in Oita; he leapt high to field kicks with ease, turned England's Henry Slade inside and out, and used all of his powerful frame in defence. He gave the thousands of Wallabies fans in attendance something to cling to during an otherwise disastrous 80 minutes.

It would be wrong to expect too much from Petaia in whatever short time he may get off the bench in the Reds' clash with the Brumbies in Canberra, but it is a significant moment in the season nonetheless given he will then have a further four games to help him adjust to the physical demands of top-level rugby. For a player who has already suffered hamstring, foot and shoulder injuries, Petaia's body still has a question mark on it and the need for Reds coach Brad Thorn to ease him back into the game is obvious.

But Petaia will hopefully then get the chance to play outside James O'Connor in consecutive games, which is important given the likelihood the Reds fly-half will fill either of the 10 or 12 positions when or if the Wallabies do take to the field later this year.

So when, as expected, Suaalii on Saturday puts pen to paper on a deal that will tie him to the Rabbitohs and rugby laments a player who might have been something special, they will only have to wait a few hours for a glimpse at someone, only three years older, who has already performed on the game's biggest stage.

It may only be 20 minutes or even just 10, but anyone who was in Oita last year knows what Petaia can do and why any Suaalii disappointment should last little longer than a Wayne Bennett press conference.

"For Jordan to step up into that role at 13, I think he's was one of our best there tonight, it says a lot about some of the guys we've got coming through and there [are] some guys that aren't even here that are going to be great in this jersey going forward," Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper said that night in Japan.

"So I guess that's one of the good stories; on one side you've got a bunch of fellas leaving and on the other you've got people to fill that spot and I think there's some really good stuff coming through."