Forget the headline, forget John Eales for just one moment. The player who sprang to mind when I first viewed Trevor Hosea in action was Springbok second row Victor Matfield.
Matfield is probably the greatest lineout player of the professional era. One of my first deep digs into his modus operandi occurred on the Scotland tour of the Republic in 2006.
I was preparing for Wales’ 2006-07 international season at the time, and one of the focal points was the spring-heeled Scotland lock, Scott Murray.
Murray was probably the best defensive lineout poacher in the northern hemisphere, so his match-up with Matfield promised to be one for the set-piece connoisseur.
In the event, it was a no-contest. It was not that Murray did not try to challenge for the throw in the opening half of the first Test at King’s Park – he did. He just could not get near Matfield and after half an hour he threw down his tools and stopped competing.
I had never seen Murray looking so helpless in such a strong point of his game. He was replaced after an hour and was not selected for the second Test in Port Elizabeth at all. The ultimate lineout challenge turned into a damp squib.
Matfield had that effect on any number of opponents during his career. His subtle movements up and down the line, the absence of ‘tells’ (preparatory movements before the jump) and above all, his sheer speed into the air made a genuine contest for the ball well-nigh impossible.
Melbourne Rebels lock Trevor Hosea fits the Matfield mould. He is taller (2.04 metres to Matfield’s 2.01) and has the same effortless ability to leave terra firma, defy gravity and pick off the pigskin at the top of his jump.
Trevor Hosea at Wallabies training. (Supplied photo by Andrew Phan/Rugby Australia)
In Super Rugby AU 2020, Hosea won 30 of the Rebels’ 111 own throws and was top of the steals with four out of 11 total turnovers – mostly from the mid to back-end of the line.
Geoff Parling told me recently that Hosea will not be calling the Rebels’ lineout in 2021 in Matt Philip’s absence, but that is probably an attempt to defuse the level of expectation building about his outstanding ability.
“Well, you never know do you until someone’s actually in there, but everything I’ve seen with Trevor so far is ‘Yes’,” Parling says.
“He made his Super Rugby debut this season, we brought him off the bench against the Reds and he belted some people and whacked some people and did really well.
“These guys love playing so as long as you can give them gradual intros. I think he had 20 minutes off the bench to start with, I certainly think he’s ready.”
Three Rebels games from last season’s Super Rugby AU (Round 7 against the Reds, Round 9 versus the Waratahs and the qualifying final against the Reds) tell the tale so far.
It is not so much the fact that Trevor Hosea won all of the lineout ball directed towards him that stood out, it is the fact that he won it without any serious challenge from the opposition.
As Parling pointed out in his recent interview on The Roar, the lineout has an impact well beyond the number of throws won and lost.
“I like the psychological factor a solid lineout adds to a team – the confidence it adds to your side, or takes away from the opposition,” he says.
“A good defensive lineout has the power to change an opponent’s entire game-plan. It has a real impact when they can see you are solid and reliable there.”
When your lineout functions smoothly, without any hitches, it is a huge bonus to the overall plan. You can choose whether to drive the ball or take it off the top, your backs can rely on the timing of the passes from the halves, your moves can be translated from blackboard to the green, green grass of home:
In the first example, the Waratahs’ premier lineout poacher (Ned Hanigan) barely leaves the deck before Hosea has popped the ball off the top for the Rebels to project Isi Naisarani into midfield on the first phase:
Isi’s initial penetration means that most of the Tahs’ tight forwards have been caught on the shortside of the first ruck, and some attractive attacking spaces are already beginning to open up on the wide side of the breakdown.
Trevor Hosea was the Rebels’ go-to target as they approached the opposition red zone. A quick drive off ball to Hosea at the tail creates much the same effect on the Waratahs defence at the first ruck:
At least Tom Horton had made it around to the openside of the first example, in this instance none of the Tahs’ tight forwards have been able to wrap and help out Lachie Swinton and Michael Hooper.
Hosea’s imperious ability to win the ball at the back half of the lineout, under no challenge and with full control of his body in the air and his delivery off the top, was an impressive feature:
Angus Blyth cannot get further than halfway up Hosea’s body to contest in the air, and the Rebels prospect drops the ball into exactly the pocket where his scrumhalf wants it.
On second phase, the Rebels have an inviting opportunity to shift the ball wide with the Reds’ defence forced to back off across the field:
The Queensland defenders have been forced to slide rather than rush and their fullback, Jock Campbell, will shortly be presented with a difficult choice as the last man, with both Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete bearing down upon him.
Hosea’s speed of elevation into the air, and his body control at the top of the jump, is Victor-like in quality:
At the apex, Hosea’s knees are well above the heads of both of his lifters, who have a full arm extension. He is looking at the target, and he is passing the ball down with two hands, under full control:
Hosea also won three of his steals at the tail of the line, making it hard for opponents to win blue-ribbon lineout ball:
‘Two-hands Hosea’ would be an appropriate nickname, given his facility with both hands on the ball – not just at lineout time, but when he is required to make decisions as a forward first receiver:
Carrying the ball in two hands allows the ball-carrier to remain flexible, and make a late decision between running and passing. In this instance, Hosea sees a back in front of him, Hamish Stewart, and decides to run over the top of him.
He can also earn the hard metres in contact against king-hit forwards like Lukhan Salakaia-Loto:
Facing towards the passer, and presenting two hands out in front of him represents excellent technique for a receiving forward. It encouraged Hosea to explore his options, either sweeping the ball wide into the second line of attack:
Or dropping off a sympathetic in-pass to a support player in space:
All the agility and soft hands in the world will not cut much ice if a lock cannot perform his core tasks, like the scrum:
Hosea stays impressively low in this long scrum from the qualifying round match against the Reds. It lasts for more than ten seconds in total, but the youngster stays in the sweet spot behind the prop on his side (Cameron Orr) throughout:
Hosea is flat and low, in fact lower than Matt Philip (in the headband) on the tighthead side. As a result, as the set-piece develops it goes forward on his side, with the power applied through Orr and Jordan Uelese against the formidable Taniela Tupou.
SummaryWill there ever be a second coming of the iconic John Eales, the athletic big-man who represented Australia so well both on and off the field in the 1990s, including in two World Cup wins which bridged the amateur and professional eras in 1991 and ’99? Probably not.
But the Melbourne Rebels’ Trevor Hosea has the raw talent to come close – either to Eales, or to the best lineout exponent of professional times, Victor Matfield. He is bigger than both of them and has comparable natural agility, soft hands and body control in the air.
He may even be able to give Australia the lineout presence they have lacked since Eales’ day. Lineout authority always used to be the main gateway to the Wallabies’ signature attacking style back then. It may still be now.
With a strong lineout, everything looks so much easier. You can get either your forwards into play (via the maul) or the backs (off the top). You can run your set-piece attacks and beat the defence to the first ruck, and dictate phase play thereafter.
The current situation in the Australian second row is fluid and there is a great opportunity for Hosea to state his case – especially in the absence of Matt Philip for the duration of Super Rugby AU.
If he can grasp it, Australian supporters will probably not lay down palm leaves underneath his feet and acclaim him as their lineout saviour. But they may mutter a few quiet “hosannas” under their breath.
It may be impossible to clone John Eales, but the era of lineout dominance associated with him can definitely be repeated.