First (Photo by Getty Images)

We call them “five-eighths” or “fly-halves”. The Kiwis call them “first five-eighths” to differentiate from “second five-eighths”, the position Australians call “inside centres”, French call “le centre” and Poms may yet call “Sam Burgess”. But today, in modern rugby-speak, the man one off the ruck, scrum, maul or line-out is a “10”. And they’re no less pivotal. And before each World Cup we trot one out and hope.

In ’87 it was Michael Lynagh, the great “Noddy”, who nearly got us there save for Serge Blanco. Four years later, Lynagh again, who won the ’91 quarter-final against Ireland because he didn’t give up or panic and just played rugby. And the William Webb Ellis trophy, “Bill”, flew home on QF1. In ’95 Australia were favourites but Lynagh was too old and slow, and the Wallabies were dropped out by Rob Andrew of England in the quarters.

But then came ’99 and Stephen Larkham, the great lanky ghost, the almost preternaturally brilliant ball-flinger, the best one since Mark Ella. And Bill came flying home on the big red roo again. There followed Sydney, and Larkham almost got us home; only hard-bodied, destiny-infused, laser-focused England got in the way with a talismanic ten, Jonny Wilkinson.

Larkham was still about in ’07 but too old and injured and out we went in the quarters, again, to England, again. And then four years later (and ago) the Kiwis’ destiny was finally fulfilled and the Wallabies were smashed by the All Blacks. And for all Quade Cooper’s derring-do and party-pants, he wasn’t equipped for smart, cynical, “boring” Test rugby. And out the door we went.

And so here we are again, Australians, before another RWC, and the five-eighth, the 10, the pivotal pivot isn’t carved in stone. We have ideas. But we don’t have a lock. We thought we did, and you may have worked out who Inside Sport believed that would be. And still believes it should be ...

Now, it’s true: Australian rugby does have some tasty 10s. There’s the flashy, tattooed wild one, Cooper. There’s skilful, dependable Christian Lealiifano, the best goal-kicker in the land. There’s a tall 21-year-old bloke who plays for the Rebels, Jack Debreczeni, who could bolt into the squad. He looks good, Debbo, and you could YouTube him. You could also play hyper-skilled Kurtley Beale at 10 or the abrasive Matt Toomua. Matt Giteau’s recently back from France and was put straight into the starting Wallabies “12”, a massive plug for the man who piloted Toulon to a European Rugby Championship. James O’Connor? James O’Connor.

But for a 10 to depend upon in a World Cup, a fly-half you know will have a go and not stuff things up, who’ll run the ball the Australian way, who’ll be cool, who can kick goals under the pump, who is dangerous with ball in hand, who can pop one for a pig or see a hole wide and put his fullback through it, who can unleash multiple gain-line marauders, who can tackle Burgess or any other great thumping man-o-war who charges into the ten’s heaving, tempestuous “channel”, then please, sports fans, look no further than Waratahs man Bernard Foley.

And yet ... and yet Michael Cheika’s keeping us guessing about who actually will be the Wallabies’ starting 10 in the eighth quadrennial Rugby World Cup in England. As one journo suggested to this journo, “The answer is there's no answer.” Cheika has all the players on high alert. Save the captain and Israel, there are no guarantees. Cooper was picked in the 10 for the first Test of the campaign. Cynics (journos) read into that coach’s call that Cheika wants to keep Cooper in Australian rugby and is throwing him a bone: go well, play 10. And why not? At his bouncy best Cooper’s a fun-running gun. And he’s matured, as men do. And his combination with Australia’s best-performing Super Rugby halfback Will Genia is key. So Cooper got first dibs.

But Foley, surely, is the better, more effective rugby player. And given the respective recent successes of the Waratahs and Reds in the last two seasons, in which “Ws” attributed to each team read NSW 22, Queensland 8, then Foley is the man above Cooper or any of the other prospects for Wallabies number 10.

Now, Inside Sport lauded Cooper through the very roof following Queensland’s Super Rugby win in ’11 and fair enough, he was going gangbusters. But he and his fellow amigos, these flighty risk-merchants, have had their go. And now, if you want to actually up and win the Rugby World Cup, to actually beat the All Blacks – and South Africa, Ireland, England, Wales, France, whoever – in Test match rugby, in the northern hemisphere, on soft tracks, with referees and local media who think your scrum is full of soft-cocks, then you need a 10 who’ll take the right options, who’ll provide a threat with hand and foot, and kick all his goals under the game’s biggest pumps.

And that, surely, is Bernard Foley.

ALO’S

Foley is the second-youngest child of six nominally Irish-Catholic kids brought up in Kenthurst in the Hills District of Sydney’s greater north-west, a sprawling chunk of big block suburbia known for happy-clapping money-churches. And it’s where Foley played rugby from U/6s to U/16s with his mates, and with his old man as coach.

But the joint couldn’t hold him. And thus in Year 9 he headed to St Aloysius, the Jesuit joint between Luna Park and the PM’s place in Kirribilli, a school where they teach with equal application rugby, chess, debating, drama.

Frank Clarke was first XV coach at “Alo’s” and taught Foley. He remembers the boy had a “glint in his eye”. “He was very respectful, popular with his peers and a pretty hard worker,” says Clarke. “Very bright.

“We were aware of his ability when he came to us. And each year he just became better and better. When he crossed the line at training he wanted to know everything you had, and then some.”

Yet Foley’s wasn’t talent writ so large that it screamed “Wallaby”. He had time as the good young ones do. But Alo’s didn’t win a lot and Foley didn’t make rep teams. Paul Cornish played three Tests for Australia and runs Waverley College’s first XV. He coached Foley in Catholic Association Schools (CAS) seconds. He says the boy was “exceptional”.

“I thought he was the best 10 that I’d seen for a long time,” says Cornish. “He made a reasonable side without stars dangerous. They didn’t win many but in the 10 he made it difficult to coach against. He always went to the line. He could pick out if 13 wasn’t a good defender and throw a ball past him. He could get outside the man. There was always that skill.

“But he didn’t really have the better players around him to get recognised as he should’ve. I was CAS firsts coach and tried to get him on early second half. I rated him. The guy they picked in the ones was good. But I thought Bernard offered more.”

Clarke reckons his job was “just hold the clipboard”. “His class really shone through. I don’t call myself a coach with these blokes. Pat McCabe was another guy, a couple of years above him, loads of time, guts. And that’s probably another of Bernard’s real strengths. He’s grown up tackling big kids out in the Hills district. No fear, just technique and ability. This year a giant Springbok No.8 came at him, he went around the legs, no problems.

“And in team talks, what he’d say at half-time, even in Year 11, it was bang on. He was two steps ahead of the coaches sometimes, reading the game.”

Clarke remembers Foley scoring four tries in a match against Cranbrook, each that he created and finished. Another game on tour to Brisbane, Alo’s played famous Anglican Church Grammar School – “Churchie” – and flogged them 20-nil. At half-time they brought on another kid, Quade Cooper. And the pair went at each other. “And you knew straight away you had a couple of kids who were dynamite,” says Clarke.

Despite Foley’s lack of rep honours, Clarke and Cornish were sure he’d play at least provincial rugby – even if they were a little surprised how long it took. “He went to Sydney Uni and played Colts but I was really surprised he didn’t play first grade earlier,” says Cornish. “But he got a really good solid background, skills and learned how to be part of the culture. And that semi-professional background, that grounding, stood him in good stead for the next level rather than making it too early.” Messrs Cooper, Beale and O’Connor might agree.

Though Foley never saw rugby as a career, he did enjoy improving. He says the program at Uni allowed him to train as hard as he wanted. “They had all the facilities and coaches there, the perfect environment. And coaches who really urged you to train hard. And we had a very good side, two seasons undefeated. Nick Phipps, Paddy Ryan, Michael Hodgson came out of those systems and excelled. I wasn’t always fittest or best. But at Uni it taught you what was needed to take the step up.”

Middle (Photo by Getty Images)

SEVENS

In the spring of 2010 a week after his Colts were crowned premiers, Bernard Foley walked out of a lecture hall at Sydney University and saw a voice message on his phone. It was Mick O’Connor asking if he wanted to come to Canberra and train with the Australian Sevens squad. And though he had a night out planned with mates, it took him all of one second to say yes.

O’Connor had been at the grand final to look at another player, a fullback, but came away with Foley and halfback Nick Phipps. “They were outstanding,” says O’Connor. “Bernard, particularly, had a hand in everything. Similar to how he plays today, how he throws himself into the game.

“So I invited them to Canberra, the AIS, where we had a camp space. We’d go down Friday morning, have an afternoon session, couple of Saturday sessions, one Sunday morning, then bus them out that afternoon.”

And the pair hurled themselves at it, O’Connor struck by their manic work ethic. “It’s a pretty full weekend, very little downtime. But whenever they did have time they were out practising, throwing lineouts. Incredible, they were so driven, they so wanted to succeed.”

Foley went to Canberra by his own admission “unprepared and out of shape”. Sydney Uni was great fun, the rugby was a bonus. He lived like a student, enjoyed a beer, didn’t think at all about diet or cleanliness. But from that first day in camp onwards he was a professional player.

The testing was rigorous – speed, strength, skill, lung capacity. Something called a yo-yo (similar to a beep test) that Phipps broke the record for and Foley wasn’t far off. “Their yo-yos set off bells straight away,” says O’Connor. “If you know they have skill, lung capacity and propensity for work, they’ve got the makings of a decent Sevens player.”

Foley enjoyed the marking, the testing, the professionalism. “It was good to see where you were at. By the time the squad went to the [2010] Commonwealth Games [in Delhi] we probably couldn’t have been fitter, faster and stronger. Everyone was in top nick.” A silver medal followed. And a life on tour. And for a 20-year-old who hadn’t been overseas much, Sevens was a dream.

“I didn’t know what the go was,” smiles Foley. “You’d get to all these cities and cultures, and play in the big stadiums with big crowds. Y’know, 60-80,000 people. It was an eye-opener. But I really enjoyed it.”

And he trained harder again. Like Cooper Cronk and Robbie Farah, league men with whom Foley shares height, balance, smarts and work ethic, he worked to improve himself to a fault. Says O’Connor: “Didn’t matter where we were, Wellington, Dubai, Vegas, Bernard would find a field to practise. Our bus usually had to wait for him.”

Yet Foley could be loose, as 20-year-olds can be. As Sydney Uni coach Chris Malone says dryly, “He’s an Australian male.” O’Connor sees something of himself in Foley. “He didn’t mind a party,” he says. “And he wasn’t used to showing up on time. He could get a bit relaxed around that because he hadn’t been in a professional program. Though he was far more mature than I was at the same age. But in saying that, he was still a boy. He was very popular, the boys liked him. Bit loose in other areas. He was a uni student, he liked having a few beers, and that’s fine.

“But the Sevens was good for him because we could take those edges off him. When you’re away on a Sevens tour, back-to-back tournaments, you pretty much can’t drink. It’s like running a marathon and backing up. You have to really prepare well.”

O’Connor says Foley always had propensity to learn, to get better. And he’s wicked smart. “You wouldn’t believe it but he is,” smiles O’Connor. “Studied accountancy. Dad’s a lawyer. Good family. Big family, lot of girls. And he’s close to them.

“And he was popular with the boys because he’d instigate games of cricket. He loves cricket, he’s an encyclopedia of cricket, loves getting a bat and ball, having a hit. Really good team player.”

Good player period. After a year of playing Sevens rugby he was among the best players in the world.

THE KICK

Foley signed with the Waratahs in 2011 and changed his body. He prepared it for contact with giants. He worked on explosiveness, on effectiveness in breakdown melees, trying to dominate in contact. And he kicked goals until the sun went down.

Last game of ’11 he came off the bench. First game of 2012, the derby against Queensland, he came off the bench again. Next game he started. Scored a try. Loved it. Felt comfortable, felt he could perform consistently; that he could do what he’d done at every level.

Middle of 2012 he was called into the Wallabies’ squad for the series against Wales. Second Test in Melbourne he was 24th man, the “only person in Australia hoping Berrick Barnes’ wife would stay in labour longer”, he jokes. He moved to five-eighth from fullback, had a season at 10 for the Tahs but missed the Lions series. For the Rugby Championship they took him on tour. After landing in Argentina from South Africa coach Ewen McKenzie pulled himself aside. Told him: You’re in, riding the bench for the Test. Go well, son.

“For a boy growing up in Kenthurst, one of six kids, all who used to love our rugby, who dreamed of playing for Australia growing up, to get that call, that acknowledgement ... ” Foley’s voice trails off. He’s a pretty good talker, our Foles. But he’s up against it.

And then, August 2, 2014, cometh the hour cometh the man. Against the mighty Crusaders of New Zealand’s south island the Waratahs were down by two with two to play. They mauled and drove the ball upfield. Didn’t panic. Won a penalty, 45 metres out. As Rod Kafer said excitedly on Fox Sports, “Oh, it’s right on his limit.”

Foley lined it up. Went through his process. Thought only about how good it would be if the ball went over, how much Allianz Stadium would lift, the noise of the 42,000. He took his pose. Took a final look at the posts. And moved in.

Thump. Struck it well! And straight! The ball floated high and long, tumbling like a long drop punt. Would it make it? Would it? Would it ...

Yes it would. And everyone lost their shit.

“It was an amazing feeling,” says Foley. “After we got the penalty all I was thinking was how good would this place be if this kick goes over; I’d love to make this place erupt. And I remember after, seeing the look on everyone’s face, the joy and happiness. The people in the crowd, most of all my parents.”

And thus beer did flow. In the sheds, in a private room at flash nightclub Ivy in town, and finally back at Foley’s pad in Bondi well into Sunday morning. ”My parents were out the latest they’ve ever been, like 4am,” says Foley. “But it was a one-night thing and we tried to enjoy it for sure.”

End (Photo by Getty Images)

THE CUP

Foley is Mick O’Connor’s Wallaby 10 heading into the World Cup. He’s Paul Cornish’s, too, and Chris Malone’s, and Damien Hill’s and Waratahs’ coach Daryl Gibson’s, who’d partner him with Will Genia. Rod Kafer would partner Foley with Nick Phipps but given he rates combinations, and says that Genia is the best halfback around ... “It’s a tight one.”

O’Connor, though, is in no doubt. “What sets him apart, I think, from any 10 in Australia is his ability just to recycle ball. He won’t throw 50-50 passes or try the spectacular. He’ll just take it in. And NSW have been able to build their game on that. He’s patient, he can play out phases. He can pick out weaknesses; he’s done his research, analysis. He prepares well. His running and support lines are similar to those he ran in Sevens. And for a player like that who can start a movement and finish it, you’ve got to go back to Mark Ella.”

Malone reckons Foley would “100 per cent” know he’s got competition from hot players for the Wallabies 10. “And that’s a good thing for Bernard and a good thing for Australian rugby. Not that he needs much motivation, but it’ll certainly drive him.

“One thing that’s always set Bernard apart is his mindset. He has absolute belief and faith in his ability. It comes from knowing he’s done the work. I remember in 2013, the club rugby grand final, Bernard was our five-eighth but spent the week before the match with the Wallabies in Perth. Now, every other coach in the world would probably be stressing they didn’t have their number 10 training in the backline all week. But he got back on the Friday night and I was struck by the belief and faith. He absolutely knew the game and he was going to go hard.”

It’s the Australian way, says Foley. “It’s the reason we all played rugby when we were little, to throw the ball around. And we want to attack and score tries and that philosophy won’t change. With the calibre of players in the squad, with so many attacking weapons, we can challenge any defensive system in the world. We’ll be looking to attack and score tries and impose ourselves.

“In saying that, we’ll have to be smart and understand our environment, our surroundings, our opposition, the conditions, the Northern Hemisphere. As much as we’re willing to play attacking rugby, you can’t do it at the detriment of results. You have be smart.

“But with Cheik, and Stephen Larkham as backs coach, we’ve got some really good strategies about how to have a balanced game, using kicking as a weapon and being dangerous and scoring tries, and playing that Australian way that we all want to do.”

(And yes, Michael O’Connor did just evoke Mark Ella.)