Skelton key to Waratahs title hopesComment on this story
Melbourne - New South Wales Waratahs coach Michael Cheika's prediction that man mountain Will Skelton could be a match-winner from the bench may have looked like a sop to a player denied a spot in his starting side for their biggest match of the season.
Instead, it proved deadly accurate as the 22-year-old lock's majestic line-break against the ACT Brumbies set up his team's winning try and gives them a chance to seal a maiden Super Rugby title against the Canterbury Crusaders on Saturday.
Auckland-born Skelton grew up watching the Crusaders humble a procession of would-be contenders in the southern hemisphere competition but is likely to be a focus of their attention ahead of the blockbuster final at Sydney's Olympic Stadium.
Video footage of the lock shrugging off three Brumbies tacklers on a thundering run through midfield would be unnerving enough for Crusaders staff. His sublime offload to eventual try-scorer Bernard Foley would give them more cause for concern.
“We were under a lot of pressure,” Skelton told reporters in Sydney of the play, which sent a crowd of 38,000 into delirium. “That try sealed the match. Boys working hard off the ball.
“I was surprised. You don't usually make breaks. The forwards try to work hard and just get through contact. I'll have a look at the highlights and see how it really went.”
For all of his presence, Skelton slipped through New Zealand's fingers and quickly became a cult hero “across the ditch”, where his power, soft hands and deft timing have already been earned him a Wallabies debut against France.
The son of Samoa-born parents, Skelton is likely to reacquaint himself with a number of Crusaders players when Australia open the four-nation Rugby Championship against world champions New Zealand.
Though backed to battle former Australia skipper James Horwill and Brumbies lock Sam Carter for a starting role in the Wallabies, Skelton has been used as an impact player off the bench for the Waratahs with departing international Kane Douglas and South African enforcer Jacques Potgieter setting the tone.
At 137kg and 6-ft-8in (2.03 metres), Skelton might seem an unlikely pinch hitter from the pine, but the player's heft and rugby smarts may be vital against the Crusaders, famous for finding another gear in the later stages of games.
“You bring a guy like Will on and he can pull something like that (line-break) out of his bag of tricks,” Cheika told reporters.
“It symbolised the fact that we are not worried about the consequences. 'I'll take responsibility. I'll make that pass and I believe it will work out.'“
In a side not lacking in firepower, with players of the calibre of fullback Israel Folau and inside centre Kurtley Beale, Skelton offers an additional defensive headache for Todd Blackadder's Crusaders as they bid to seal an eighth title and end a six-year drought since their last.
A cousin of former All Blacks lock Brad Mika, Skelton turned down an approach from his hometown Auckland Blues before committing to the Waratahs.
But while New Zealand rugby have missed out on one Skelton, they have swooped for another.
Cameron, who stands two centimetres taller than his older brother and weighs 145kg, represented Samoa at the junior World Cup last month.
He will join the Waikato Chiefs' development programme as part of “efforts aimed at enticing players back to New Zealand”, the two-time Super Rugby champions said in a statement on Monday. – Reuters