Watching Rugby’s ‘Flair Jordan’ is not unlike an armchair seat at a Formula One race. You ogle at the pacy gear changes in that sleek chassis yet also wonder how close he’s going to a crash barrier.
When he’s fit and fully confident behind the wheel, Jordan Petaia is all class and brings a unique exhilaration when a Wallabies backline move unfolds.
Take last weekend in Perth. As a replacement winger, Petaia positioned himself just right for that last silky pass from Andrew Kellaway. There was still work to do and he blasted through the tackle of cover defender Danny Care to dot down.
Not for the first time, Rugby fans are hoping 2022 is the year that he strings together a consistent run of Tests and explosive performances.
“We want more” has been an almost constant refrain since his eye-popping debut for the Wallabies at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
When he scored a try on debut against Uruguay with a little spin move flourish and caused England headaches in the first half of the flawed quarter-final against England, you had his name inked in as a certain selection for every Australian team until the 2023 World Cup.
Sport is never that smooth when it comes to scripts.
In the 21 Tests since the last World Cup, Petaia has played just 14 and only seven as a starter at outside centre or wing.
Big injuries have punctuated his progress but look at his passport. He’s still just 22. His body may finally be catching up and hardening to the rigours of top-tier Rugby.
Is Petaia playing catch-up on the future predicted for him or is he ahead of the curve? It depends on the prism you look through.
Teammate Kellaway was still three years away from a Test debut at the same age.
Petaia is still ahead of the game. He could well be heading to the Rugby World Cup in France next year with 30-plus Tests to his name and years of experience at just 23. His best, and plenty of it, is still ahead.
In March, Petaia knocked back massive club offers from England and France to re-commit to the Wallabies and Queensland Reds through to the end of 2024.
He knows himself he is not yet the finished product he wants to be. Typically, you almost had to bear hug him to squeeze out the news of other offers.
“Yeah, yeah . . . a couple of offers. The best decision is to stick around here, improve my footy and keep growing,” Petaia told me ezarlier this year.
He made it clear that his close-knit family is another strong reason why Brisbane is still home.
More than any hamstring, shoulder or leg injury, the sudden death of his father Tielu in 2020 ripped a wound that will never completely heal.
“My family is very close. Sticking around to watch my nieces and ‘nephs’ grow up is important to me. I’ve had three arrive in the space of two years so it is definitely easy to not want to leave. Family is a major factor for me,” Petaia said.
When Petaia was picked at 19 for the youngest ever Rugby World Cup debut for a Wallaby, he had family in his corner.
Cousin and fellow Wallaby Matt Toomua was in the backline with him against Uruguay in Oita.
Toomua’s early assessment stills rings true: “Athletically, he is a big boy but more so than a few young guns early on he is just as competent on both sides of the ball, attack and defence.
“He likes getting in the rough and tumble stuff and it’s probably a lot of the reason why coaches have shown a lot of faith in him.”
The beauty of Petaia is you see that physical influence in so many varied ways. He made two of the best covering tackles in Super Rugby Pacific by burying attackers to prevent tries.
He doesn’t see a brick wall and run straight at it either. He swerves, he stays elusive and he runs a switch instinctively. He has a gear change with his acceleration that deceives defenders as well as a body shake, footwork, speed and the leg strength to burst through tackles. He’s an assertive figure dominating air space under high kicks like Israel Folau.
To continue the motor racing analogy, he goes for it. He seldom seems to apply the brakes.
Reds backs coach Jim McKay, who held the same role for the Wallabies in 2013-2014, has seen the growth within Petaia over four years that others might have missed.
“He’s unassumingly intelligent. He picks up stuff really quickly and I think the Wallabies and Reds will see the benefits of him having explored three positions,” McKay said.
“His time at fullback has given him more ideas about the strategic side of the game generally.
“For a long time, it was Jordy as the new kid on the bloke. You got him the ball and he could just be Jordy.
“I think he’s poised in a really nice place where he can demand more of himself and his teammates around him as well.
“Plus, he understands his own body conditioning more now which brings a confidence too.
“He’s a most impressive young man, a great role model and he’s found a nice balance in his life.”
Reds and Wallabies squad-mate Tate McDermott has seen the spark within Petaia since the start of Super Rugby Pacific this year.
“He’s moving extra well after working really hard on his body. He’s smiling and he’s got that lightning back he had when he was a young fella,” McDermott said.
That didn’t stop Reds teammates playfully niggling the suburban boy with the occasional nickname of ‘Django’ a la the cowboy from the 2012 Quentin Tarantino movie.
“I went up to North Queensland (in January) and the boys thought I’d come back as a bit of a cowboy,” Petaia said with a laugh.
Petaia was spotted in an Instagram post riding a horse and wearing a broad-brimmed hat while exploring a gorge in the far north with girlfriend Annabelle Needham.
Petaia loves playing on the fast, familiar turf of Suncorp Stadium. He’s shared in Test wins there over the All Blacks (2020) and South Africa (2021) and would nearly love to add a high-octane, Test-clinching win over England.