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The crucial attribute James O'Connor will bring back to the Reds at Eden Park

By AAP
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Queensland’s game of musical chairs will continue at Eden Park but in James O’Connor’s return, the frustrated side is anticipating a much-needed shot of belief.

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O’Connor (knee) will return a week earlier than initially forecast to face Super Rugby Pacific leaders the Blues (10-1) in Auckland on Saturday.

The No 10 was in devastating form before missing the Reds’ last three games against New Zealand sides, with the Queenslanders coughing up leads to lose them all.

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Hunter Paisami (shoulder) will also return but Harry Wilson (concussion), backrow partner Fraser McReight and re-signed hooker Richie Asiata (illness) won’t make the trip.

It continues the Reds’ (7-4) constant battles with injury and illness – Taniela Tupou, Liam Wright and Alex Mafi headline a clogged long-term injury list – that’s finally caught up to them.

“We haven’t been in this position for a while, it’s been a test of our resilience and there’s been a lot of frustrated people based off our results,” Reds captain Tate McDermott said of their slump.

Injuries elsewhere meant the Reds’ backup plan to use Jock Campbell or Isaac Henry in the halves was thwarted, with Lawson Creighton blooded against their ruthless trans-Tasman opponents instead.

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McDermott lamented last week he and his fellow backs had “thrown him to the wolves” by not taking more of the playmaking burden off the rookie’s shoulders.

“Lawson did a really good job, but having James back it’s massive for the belief of the side,” he said on Wednesday.

“[He brings] belief and that’s been the thing lacking; we’ve been going into our shells, played a conservative brand of footy that hasn’t suited us.”

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McDermott said Wilson was upbeat after his sickening concussion against the Highlanders.

In Sydney, Wallabies captain Michael Hooper launched the test side’s 2022 jersey on Wednesday, but the flanker wasn’t named to return for the Waratahs with outright fourth spot on the line against the Hurricanes at Leichhardt Oval.

Fresh from Japanese rugby stints, Ned Hanigan and Paddy Ryan have been named on the bench after rejoining the squad this week.

The Brumbies (10-1) have been dealt a double blow ahead of Friday’s anticipated home game against the Crusaders (8-3), with Noah Lolesio (concussion) and Rob Valetini (hamstring) ruled out.

Local product Tom Hooper has the unenviable task of replacing the in-form Valetini in the No 6 jersey, while Rod Iona will resume duties at five-eighth after enjoying success there earlier this season.

“You can’t drop your bottom lip; we feel the squad is prepared to handle setbacks like this and there will be zero excuses from us on Friday,” coach Dan McKellar said.

The ninth-placed Rebels (3-8) have welcomed back captain Michael Wells and Wallabies hooker Jordan Uelese for Sunday’s crunch clash with the Chiefs at AAMI Park.

– Murray Wenzel

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