Len Ikitau: The Brumbies centre tracking towards a Wallabies debut

Of all the 16 uncapped players included among Dave Rennie's squad for the Bledisloe Cup and Tri Nations last year, there was one name that almost completely emerged from left field.

Having played just a handful of appearances for the Brumbies off the bench, and then started in the final round 27-6 loss to the Reds at Suncorp Stadium, Len Ikitau wasn't a name that even the most astute judges would have pegged in Rennie's first Test squad, despite the fact it ran 46 names deep.

Assistant coach Scott Wisemantel had mentioned Ikitau's name in an interview with ESPN, but such were his fleeting appearances for the Brumbies it was thought the young centre was more being namedropped for the future.

A few weeks later, there was a clue in the value the Brumbies saw in Ikitau when they let Tevita Kuridrani head west to join the Force.

And it has taken just two rounds for the rest of the Australian rugby community to see Ikitau's talent flourish in Super Rugby AU and potentially put him on a path to a Test debut later this year.

"I always knew he was born for this; you've seen his first two games, he's killed it," Brumbies teammate Darcy Swain said Tuesday.

"There's no doubt he belongs where he belongs, he's owned that 13 jersey and I know he's destined for bigger things than just the Brumbies jersey. One day I know he'll be in the green and gold for sure."

Ikitau has been among the Brumbies' top performers in each of their opening two victories which have come away to the Force in Perth, and then the 61-10 thrashing off the Waratahs that has set off alarm bells in Sydney.

In Perth, Ikitau set up a try for Irae Simone by skipping outside the man he has replaced in the Brumbies backline, Kuridrani, holding off the cover defence with a fend and then offloading back to Irae Simone on the inside.

Against the Waratahs last weekend, Ikitau showed off some of his other skills with a left-footed grubber that sat up perfectly to put Mack Hansen over.

Ikitau has a pair of try assists, has shown an ability to provide for players inside and out him, can offload and has proven himself capable on defence.

"The first game was pretty tough, the full 80, I was cramping at the end, but I got through it and managed to get another 80 minutes against the Tahs," Ikitau said Tuesday. "I'm happy with how the footy's going and I'm just looking forward to this week."

Ikitau says he feels right at home playing outside Simone, who did earn his first Test cap, against the All Blacks in Sydney, after also being included among Rennie's first Wallabies squad.

But he credits Swain as the man who helped him set his professional career on its path, after initially not receiving any contract offers after completing school at Brisbane Boys College.

"Darcy finished in 2015 and I finished in 2016 at Brisbane Boys College, he kind of helped me move down here and I lived with him for a couple of years," Ikitau said. "I guess things happen and I don't think me playing for the Brumbies would have happened if Darcy wasn't down here and helping me through it. So I'm very happy to have Darcy as a good mate down here.

"We played First XV for a couple of years, played through Queensland reps and we're down at Tuggies [Tuggeranong Vikings] and playing for the Brumbies. It's good times. At the end of 2016 I really didn't have any opportunities so I hit up Darcy and said if there was anything down here, and he mentioned that Tuggies were looking for a centre and I think after that everything just fell into place.

"I moved down here after school and he's been looking after me ever since. He's played a massive role in my success at the Brumbies."

Outside centre remains one of a number of open positions within the Wallabies setup this year.

Queensland pair Jordan Petaia and Hunter Paisami filled the position under Rennie in 2020, but neither man has nailed down the No. 13 jersey by any stretch of the imagination. Some judges believe Paisami is better suited to No. 12 while Petaia has started this season on the wing at the Reds.

And depth is exactly what Australia requires for the run to the 2023 Rugby World Cup and beyond, with the 22-year-old Ikitau giving selectors another option to push both Petaia [21] and Paisami [22] at Test level later this year should he continue his strong start to 2021.

While Ikitau may not have featured in any Tests for 2020, his inclusion as part of that extended squad is a sign of the regard he is held in with the Wallabies coaching staff.

And from what Ikitau has shown in the first two weeks of Super Rugby AU this season, it seems only a matter of time before that wider squad inclusion becomes a fully-fledged Test debut.