The 29-year-old exhibited a masterful display of flyhalf rugby maturely mixing his attacking options between the run, pass and kick options available to him, often leaving his opponents flummoxed on how to shut down the Queensland attack.
Whilst I concur with the praise of O’Connor, it would be remiss not to highlight the performance of the man just outside of O’Connor, namely Hamish Stewart.
Arguably the biggest question the Queensland Reds had to answer this season was how would they replace Samu Kerevi in the 12 jersey. Stewart answered that question on Saturday night delivering an unspectacular but nonetheless invaluable performance for his side.
It was a performance Samu Kerevi himself is not capable of, but the performance Queensland required to achieve such a stunning victory.
For James O’Connor to be able to marshal the Queensland Reds around the field he requires a dependable partner on his outside shoulder otherwise the attack becomes predictable as it is too reliant on O’Connor himself. Stewart illustrated what a partner he is for O’Connor in that Queensland midfield as on numerous occasions he would step into the first receiver’s role allowing O’Connor to roam into the wider channel and either link with his outside backs or attack the space himself.
Such a strategy worked to great effect when O’Connor linked with Henry Speight who had all but scored a try but was tackled close to the line yet found O’Connor back on the inside in support who claimed the honours.
Yet Stewart offers so much more than just playing second fiddle to O’Connor in the attacking structure as a distributor. Apart from being able to step into first receiver, Stewart himself proved to be more than competent running as a flat attacking option in the traditional 12 channel.
As a dummy runner, Stewart runs angles that engage the defensive line towards him thus allowing whoever receives the ball greater time and space to work with as defenders have been drawn to Stewart.
The times he actually received the pass, the 90kg Stewart carried numerous defenders with him past the gain line, and on one occasion through sheer will dragged his opposite the 105kg Ben Teo along with him giving his side the all-important front foot ball. Evidently, Stewart can provide his side post-contact meters.
There are ‘good problems’ in rugby from time-to-time and the Queensland Reds are experiencing that when considering to start two openside flankers in Captain Liam Wright, and the exceptionally talented Fraser McReight.
The reason for selecting a dual openside is that a team would be seeking greater presence at the breakdown and in support play. Yet that can often leave the lineout and or scrum exposed due to lack of weight and jumping options.
Whilst it would be tempting to start McReight alongside Wright, Queensland should guard against doing so as their set-piece is performing exceptionally well and there is already a quasi-open side flanker in the backline in Hamish Stewart.
As a former schoolboy flanker, Stewart has a natural attraction to the breakdown and furthermore is more than just a body in that space. Stewart’s body shape and position at the breakdown are as good as any forward at Super Rugby level, as is his leg drive into the cleanout.
Whilst he may not be obtaining turnovers regularly Stewart does secure the ball for his side and furthermore, when tackling he is quick to rollaway, return to his feet and contest the breakdown lawfully. Seldom will Hamish Stewart put pressure onto his own side by lazy play in the recycle.
Whilst some may argue for the dual openside flankers to allow greater support play, there would be few better support players in that Queensland side than Stewart himself. When looking at James O’Connor’s try, it was Stewart just off his shoulder.
Furthermore, in the first half with Queensland on the attack just past the halfway Harry Wilson carried sublimely into the collision zone but fell in a manner he could not see Stewart running an inverted angle back off his open shoulder. If a pass could have been popped, Stewart looked destined for space, if not the try line. He is a very astute support player who works hard off the ball for his team.
In defence, Stewart performed admirably and he largely kept former English international and British & Irish Lion Ben Teo quite in attack. If there were any criticism of Hamish Stewart’s performance it would be that he did have a defensive misread, that oddly enough contributed to his own try.
With the Sunwolves launching an attack just inside their halfway through JJ Englebrecht, Hamish Stewart should have trusted his inside defence in Lukhan Salakia-Loto who appeared to have the former Springbok covered, yet Stewart doubled up, opening up space for Ben Teo.
Stewart, however, was lucky enough to get a finger on the ball which ever so slightly disrupted the pass to Teo who subsequently had over overrun the pass, with the ball popping back into to Stewart’s arms who then showed some acceleration to run away with a try.
In looking towards the Reds’ encounter with the Sharks this weekend, if I were Sharks Coach Sean Everitt and were looking to pressure the Reds defensive system it would be when Stewart is defending in that 13 channel, which only really occurred on quick turnover ball.
Furthermore, to pressure the Reds attacking system, push up on Hamish Stewart’s longer passes when he is passing long to the outside channel as Stewart is prone to holding onto the ball one or two steps too long in possession, stifling his outside runners and opening up possible interception opportunities.
The Sunwolves were too inept in this facet to seize on the opportunity of play but the opportunity was there at least twice on the weekend. However, I have little doubt the masterful Reds’ attack coach Jim Mckay would have already picked up on that aspect of Stewart’s play and it will be corrected by Saturday night.
Stewart appears to have found his rightful position in the Queensland Reds. Whilst starting out as a flyhalf and used at fullback the 21-year-old never really appeared settled in his previous three years in Super Rugby and spent much of 2019 on the bench.
However, at inside centre in 2020 and not carrying the complete burden of organizing an attack and being given the latitude to play in a system that promotes his skill set, he is the quietest of achievers in the Queensland side and has emerged from the wilderness as an exceptionally valuable rugby player to the Queensland Reds in 2020.
If Wallaby coach Dave Rennie is looking for a multi-skilled, the dependable midfielder could well yet find himself in a Wallaby squad in a few months.
Reds flyhalf James O’Connor talks to the media:
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