The writing was on the wall as far back as October 2019, when the Brumbies confirmed Nic White would be returning to Canberra, having committed to returning to Australia from the English Premiership earlier in the year.
Though he wasn’t expected to feature in Super Rugby at all in 2020, White coming back to the Brumbies meant that an awkward decision was nearing: how on earth was Australia’s most successful provincial team going to keep three genuine starting scrumhalves on its books – White, rising local Ryan Lonergan, and another home-grown talent, four-Test Wallaby Joe Powell.
Clearly, three players in two scrumhalf spots wasn’t going to work.
COVID-19 then forced the issue earlier than expected, when White and his family returned to Australia from England in March 2020, and the Brumbies looked to get him on the field sooner rather than later.
By the time the Brumbies won the Super Rugby AU final last year, it was already clear Powell was the odd man out. Seventy-three games for the Brumbies since his 2015 debut were capped with a title, and while in New Zealand with the Wallabies for the Bledisloe Cup series, Powell confirmed his move to Melbourne to link up with the Rebels.
“It was certainly a big move for me.
“There was maybe the intention of staying (with the Brumbies, when White returned), and it just didn’t sort of work out that way.
Finding a groove
Powell has been one of the Rebels’ most consistent players in 2021, clearly benefiting from the consistent game time he’s been getting by starting every game.
At times during his last season with the Brumbies he’d start one game, then be on the bench the next week, and then maybe miss out altogether the week after that as Brumbies coach Dan McKellar carefully managed the game time of his three top quality no. 9’s.
“It’s been really good, consistency-wise, just knowing that I’ll be playing consistent minutes together with (Rebels flyhalf and captain, Matt To’omua), and the other players that I’m getting used to as well. Getting that 60 or so minutes every game has been really good,” he says.
The lure of lining up alongside Wallabies flyhalf To’omua was strong too. Powell was coming onto the scene with the Brumbies as To’omua was coming to the end of his time in Canberra, before ultimately heading to England to play with Premiership giants Leicester.
“I’ve known ‘Pup’ for years, back to 2015 and 2016 at the Brumbies, but we didn’t really play many minutes together, so we’re still working on that,” Powell says.
“He’s really easy to play with, controls the game so well. He’s been kicking really well this year which is allowing us to play in the opposition half for most of the game. He’s a really good communicator too, so that’s made it very easy for me to play with him.”
It’s a combination that has been building, and Rebels coach Dave Wessels has been really impressed with the way Powell has slotted straight into the side.
“Yeah I am, and 9-10 is such a pivotal combination and time in the saddle is what’s needed there, but to be honest, Joey’s had a really good season for us. He’s played really well, he’s led well, he’s just a real competitor and doesn’t give up,” Wessels said.
“There’s no moment in a game where he’s going to take a soft option, and that’s what you want.
Opportunity on both sides
Seventy-game Super Rugby half-backs with Test experience don’t grow on trees, and Wessels confirmed it was a pretty easy decision to go after Powell as soon as he became available. The Rebels had struggled filling the no.9 jersey after former Wallaby Will Genia left in 2019, so Powell quickly became a priority.
“Absolutely, and someone like Joey, he was always going to get a lot of interest from other teams, and teams in Europe too,” Wessels says.
“But I think he felt he still had some unfinished business here in Australia, and though he’s still only played a handful of games with Matt, that’s a partnership that’s already starting to really grow for us, and over time can be really good for us.
“Plus, Melbourne’s such a cosmopolitan place, especially for people who maybe haven’t experienced big cities, Melbourne is such a great option for them, and I think Joey’s really enjoyed that.”
The change in scenery has certainly had an impact, with Powell rediscovering the running game that set him apart from other young Australian scrum halves when he first emerged six seasons ago.
“When I first played rugby, it was just all about playing what’s in front and I really enjoyed that; I certainly ran the ball a lot more in my younger days. Over the last few years, I probably got too caught up in playing a certain way and to a certain structure, and maybe lost sight of what my strengths were,” he says.
“That was a big part of coming down here as well, so hopefully I can get back to doing that.”
Powell says his developing combination with To’omua can only be a good thing for his Wallabies aspirations going forward, and Wessels says it might be closer than he realises, despite Powell being left out of Dave Rennie’s first national squad selected in this last week.
But for now, Powell remains focussed on the Rebels, and steering them to another Super Rugby finals campaign, where they’re looking to go further than the second vs third playoff they reached in 2020. It all starts with beating his childhood team this Sunday in Melbourne, as they edge close to securing that final playoff position.
“They’ll be coming out firing, and they’ve been in a similar position to us, losing games in last minutes there,” Powell says of his old side, who lost another thriller to the Queensland Reds in Brisbane last weekend.
“We’ve lost three games now within the last few minutes of the game, so it’s something we’ve been conscious of. We’re not a mile off or anything like that, and there’s still things we want to work on, but I don’t think we’ve been playing our best rugby either.
“The Brumbies will be trying to get one over us, and we’ll be doing the same. It’s a crucial little period in our season now.”
Super Rugby AU – Round 9
Saturday: Western Force v NSW Waratahs, Perth 7:45pm AEST
Saturday: Melbourne Rebels v Brumbies, Melbourne 2:05pm AEST
Queensland Reds have the bye.