Why James O'Connor is the obvious choice to start at flyhalf for the Wallabies
When the Wallabies take the field for their first match of the year this Sunday, a new-look side is expected to lead the charge towards a resurgence of the passion for the sport Down Under, in the post-Michael-Cheika-era.
For the Wallabies to recapture the hearts of the nation and win their first test against the All Blacks across the Tasman since 2001, new coach Dave Rennie is going to have to make some tough, gutsy decisions.
None more so than picking the team’s flyhalf.
With the Australian rugby public desperate for the national side to return to winning ways, the importance of this selection can’t be underestimated. As the team’s quarterback, their go-to point of difference, the Wallabies need to turn to a proven match-winner in big tests.
Rennie has to get this call right.
After a highly successful Super Rugby AU competition, former bad boy of Australian rugby, James O’Connor, appears to be the front runner for the golden 10 jersey ahead of Bledisloe One. To his credit, he’s deservedly earned this favouritism on the back of his form across the past few months, where his decision making and experience so nearly guided a youthful Reds side to silverware.
It was a year of redemption for O’Connor, who has previously had a turbulent career in Australian rugby, where his potential was at times outshone by the headlines he was creating off the field.
Even though his career hasn’t been what many expected it to be when he debuted for the national side at 18, he’s a proven match-winner and again, that’s exactly what the Wallabies need right now as they look to usher in a golden generation.
At just 20-years-old, O’Connor scored a late try and then slotted a sideline conversion on the wrong side to hand Australia a once unlikely, come from behind victory over the All Blacks in Hong Kong. The skill and poise he showed at such a young age, and what we’ve seen since as he’s continued to develop his game, is what the Wallabies need again on Sunday.
But that being said, the jersey isn’t his yet. Let’s take a look at the three other contenders for the starting flyhalf role come the first test of the year.
Noah Lolesio only played three games in an injury-plagued Super Rugby AU campaign, but his return from injury in the final has had fans and pundits calling for his selection in the Wallabies sooner rather than later.
The 20-year-old played what will end up being one of the games of his life in the 28-23 win over the Reds, finishing the night with 13 points scored, four defenders beaten, 35 metres run, and player of the match honours.
Even Dave Rennie suggested late last month that a test debut wasn’t too far away for the up-and-comer.
“Clearly we rate him highly, that’s the reason we picked him prior to that final and he hadn’t played for 10 weeks,” Rennie said.
“They’ve been talking a lot about the game, about the role and yep, he’s got a chance of starting that first test and we’ll see how things pan out.”
While Lolesio is certainly a player for the future, is he what the Wallabies need right now?
For a young guy who hasn’t yet played test match rugby, to be thrown into the test cauldron against the All Blacks in New Zealand, it’d be a lot of pressure to take on. He’s also only played one game since returning from injury.
Lolesio could potentially line up alongside either Joe Powell or Nic White in the halves, who he played alongside at the Brumbies this year. But other than that, the backline will likely be made up of a few other players who he’s never played alongside before – giving the edge in combinations to O’Connor who has plenty of experience alongside other squad members.
While he could potentially sneak onto the bench, it would be a shock to see Lolesio starting at flyhalf on Sunday.
Just like Lolesio, a similar argument could be made about another exciting prospect in Will Harrison, who started at flyhalf for the Junior Wallabies in last year’s U20s World Championship Final, while Lolesio lined up at 12.
Harrison really stood up in Super Rugby AU, with Kurtley Beatle having left for France, handing the 20-year-old the playmaking reins which he stepped up and handled.
But there’s still plenty of improvement to come in Harrison’s game, especially when compared to O’Connor and Matt To’omua, the other senior option.
Statistically speaking, Harrison had a better points-per-game average than O’Connor, and a better goal kicking accuracy with an incredible 92% across his eight games played. But elsewhere, he had fewer carries, metres run, try assists, and worse tackle accuracy than his Queensland counterpart.
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Also looking at combinations and balance, there is the potential Waratahs halves combination of Harrison and Jake Gordon, but that seems unlikely. The backline is also expected to be without many, if any, Waratahs players, which could see Harrison struggle.
For that reason, and the development that is still needed from him, Harrison won’t be the Wallabies go-to man come Sunday, at least to start the test.
O’Connor’s biggest rival for the 10 jersey is Matt To’omua, who was incredible for the Rebels this year, guiding them to the playoffs for the first time in the club’s history.
But To’omua did play plenty of rugby from inside centre throughout Super Rugby AU, and was arguably the best 12 in the country throughout the competition alongside Irae Simone.
The big reason as to why that was, was his work rate and his patience in attack. He got busy around the park, and in defence, he wasn’t afraid to put his body on the line.
That being said, it’d be tough to compare To’omua to O’Connor statistically seeing that they played plenty of minutes in two different positions. But that in itself is why the Wallabies 10-12 combination should be so clear cut.
These two players should start for the national side regardless, it’s just a matter of which one starts at 10 and which player starts at 12.
O’Connor was the most effective 10 throughout Super Rugby AU, and To’omua was arguably the best 12 – why change that when it’s clearly working for both players? To have any chance of beating the All Blacks this weekend, Rennie needs to be playing to the strengths of his players, and that means rewarding their form through the domestic season.
Possible Wallabies side:
1. Scott Sio, 2. Folau Fainga’a, 3. Allan Alaalatoa, 4. Matt Philip, 5. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 6. Liam Wright, 7. Michael Hooper (c), 8. Pete Samu, 9. Tate McDermott, 10. James O’Connor, 11. Filipo Daugunu, 12. Matt To’omua, 13. Jordan Petaia/Reece Hodge, 14. Marika Koroibete, 15. Tom Banks
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