Any indication of how important star utility back James O’Connor will be for the Wallabies this year has been proven by his inclusion in the Australian touring squad to South Africa ahead of their Rugby Championship opener against the Springboks in Johannesburg on July 21.
The talented but wayward 44-test veteran hasn’t even finalised his contract with Rugby Australia as he looks to complete his move from the Sale Sharks in the Premiership, but that hasn’t stopped Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika from thrusting O’Connor into his side on a training-only basis.
The 29-year-old last featured for the Wallabies in September 2013, but a raft of off-field controversies saw him exiled from the national side, forcing him to head to Europe to take up contracts with London Irish, Toulon and Sale.
A one-season stint with the Reds in Super Rugby in 2015 wasn’t enough to see him included in Cheika’s World Cup squad that year, but with claims that he has grown in maturity both on and off the field during his time abroad, he now appears to be vital to Australia’s World Cup hopes this year.
With injury seemingly the only thing that could prevent him from attending this year’s World Cup in Japan, the question now is where exactly does O’Connor fit into the Wallabies’ plans?
Capable of playing anywhere in the backline, except halfback, there are a multitude of positions and combinations that Cheika could utilise O’Connor in, but it doesn’t paint a clear picture as to where he could be best used.
However, former Wallabies coach John Connolly, who worked with O’Connor during his time with the Reds four years ago, has a solution that he believes Cheika could implement into his own squad.
“Working out James’s position is the first thing and it appears that he’s decided, and Steve Diamond at Sale decided, that 12 is his best position,” Connolly said on the Fox Rugby Podcast.
“Good, well that’s important because at fullback he struggled, he was trialled on the wing, he’s definitely not a 10 and we’ll be looking for a backup for [Samu] Kerevi.
“So he may well be that person.
“And he’s played OK, he hasn’t played fantastic in England but he played reasonably well.”
Toomua, Beale and O’Connor would all provide a second playmaking option from the 12 jersey, as opposed to the confrontational, explosive style of play that Kerevi operates at.
Connolly said that could be an issue if the Wallabies are looking to use Kerevi, the current incumbent at second-five, as their first-choice option.
“The downside I suppose, with what you want from a modern 12, is he’s [O’Connor] a totally different player to Kerevi,” Connolly said.
“So if we’re playing a certain style with the Wallabies, and Kerevi’s the frontrunner, you’re looking for a backup 12.
“Young O’Connor plays totally different to that.
“The players he’ll be playing against, the [Ryan] Crottys or the Sonny Bills [Williams], or the [Damian] de Allendes — they’re all very big men that he’ll be opposed to. That may be a challenge for him defensively at the very top level.
“But if you get away from O’Connor, who the backup 12 to Kerevi is, I’m not sure.
“Kurtley has again been rocks and diamonds in that position and he’s probably the frontrunner for 15.
“And I don’t think it’ll be Karmichael Hunt, so James may fit that role as the backup to Kerevi.”
Connolly’s assertions that O’Connor would be best-suited to the midfield was backed up by Cheika when he was pressed on the issues by reporters.
“He can play a bit of everywhere but I’d say in the middle, somewhere in the centres, but he could play in the back three,” Cheika said.
“We’ll work it out.”
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