James O’Connor is the youngest veteran in world rugby. Players like Neil Back and Brad Thorn would have wryly shrugged at 32 as mid-career.
Back was 34 and still all go as a flanker when he won his World Cup final with England in 2003. Thorn was 36 before he held aloft rugby’s grail in 2011 with the All Blacks.
Both were indispensable cogs for their nations in the lead-up to those tournaments.
With O’Connor, it is different. He was left in limbo last year when he was the first big-name Wallaby jettisoned from the plans of coach Dave Rennie.
This year’s Rugby World Cup in France looked extremely remote despite the utterances from Rennie about O’Connor having the chance to show what he’s got in Super Rugby Pacific.
In a January instant, that all changed. After his sudden axing, Rennie is the one certain figure not heading to the World Cup with Australia.
O’Connor now has a fresh chance with Eddie Jones as coach, however small.
One thing is certain as O’Connor tackles his 16th year of top-tier rugby: “I’m going to do everything to get on the plane to France.”
When Jones was first quizzed about his flyhalf stocks with the Wallabies, the word “utility” slipped out when O’Connor’s name was brought up. Whether he did so inadvertently or it was knee-jerk truth, you don’t quite know.
The young O’Connor played inside centre, wing and fullback with sparkling feet and skill. The more mature version featured at outside centre at the 2019 World Cup in Japan but he has played almost exclusively as a No 10 since. He’s played flyhalf with a feel for the position that he never had when thrown in as an immature experiment against the 2013 British and Irish Lions.
It was definitely deflating to get dropped after one Test.
James O’Connor on his disappointing 2022 season
That’s the very definition of utility value over a career but just what role does he potentially have in 2023 for Jones?
Has he still got the bounce in his legs, compared to young guns like Noah Lolesio and Ben Donaldson, to go with the brains for a third tilt at the Rugby World Cup?
That’s all needlessly distracting noise and speculation for a man who has found peace with life where once there was turmoil.
In Brisbane, whenever O’Connor is relaxing away from rugby it is at his bushland property 22km from the bustling centre of the 2032 Olympic city.
He’s amongst the kookaburra calls and gums where he has his long-time girlfriend and seven alpacas for company.
“It was definitely deflating to get dropped after one Test (in the 47-17 collapse against Argentina) last year,” O’Connor told RugbyPass.
Rennie wasn’t specific but said the steering of the ship in that Test was “pretty clunky” and the game plan wasn’t implemented as laid out.
“When I did my ankle in a club game, it was up to me to go away, sort that and give myself the goal to come back in my best shape.
“I feel I am. Sometimes you have to withdraw to expand again. If you are playing good footy, everything just flows from that so that’s the aim.”
The ankle has now mended after surgery.
O’Connor is a frontline type of flyhalf who is at his best taking on the defence, isolating an opponent and putting a support runner into a hole with a smart pass.
One moment during his 26-minute comeback cameo off the bench for the Queensland Reds last weekend was what everyone needed to see.
Having dashed back to retrieve a kick in his in-goal, he looked cornered. Instead, the steppy, fast feet went to work, he ran it back into the field of play and laid the ball back expertly for a clearance.
We might have been talking more about O’Connor’s confidence being there immediately except that the ruck-base clearing kick from halfback Kalani Thomas struck a bullseye by clattering into the overhead Spidercam of the broadcaster. O’Connor slotted four-from-four with the boot to finish off the 71-20 rout of a Western Force team which was awful on the night.
They were his first match minutes in five months so it makes sense that he builds from the bench again in Saturday’s big derby against the unbeaten ACT Brumbies in Canberra.
Anyway, rookie Tom Lynagh has played with such aplomb in his opening two matches that the No 10 jersey is a good fit for now.
Some might translate Rennie moving on from O’Connor as a conflict of style.
Rennie ran an attacking scheme with his flyhalf often sitting back behind pods. O’Connor is a frontline type of flyhalf who is at his best taking on the defence, isolating an opponent and putting a support runner into a hole with a smart pass.
O’Connor is one of the few players who were active when Jones last coached in Australia in 2007, an ill-fated season at the helm of the Queensland Reds.
“When I was first out of school (from Nudgee College) I had two sessions under Eddie when I was part of an NTS (National Talent Squad) sort of group,” O’Connor said.
“He was gone soon after and my first contract took me to Perth to play for the Western Force.”
He completely changed up the England game plan that beat us in the 2019 quarter-final in Japan to find a way to defeat the All Blacks a week later.
O’Connor on Eddie Jones
The cherubic young back became the youngest Super Rugby player in history when he debuted at 17 in 2008. He’d ride his push bike to the pick-up point for the team bus heading to the airport for away games. He wore the first of a score of different hairstyles across his career.
O’Connor has seen the impact of enough coaches through his rollercoaster career in Australia, France and England, plus his Test experiences, to know a good one.
“I’ve not had too much to do with Eddie but he’s a master coach to have the World Cup record he does,” O’Connor said.
“He completely changed up the England game plan that beat us in the 2019 quarter-final in Japan to find a way to defeat the All Blacks a week later.
“Eddie has had time in the saddle. He can switch his backfield set-ups from two ball players to one. He can go with a power game through the middle, his teams beat other sides in the air and so on. He has the detail for a big year like this.
“I’m not taking anything away from what Dave did with the Wallabies. We were right on the cusp of doing great things but Eddie may be the little push we need.”
O’Connor’s time with the Toulon side in France was chequered but it did give him an appreciation of the fanfare that will envelop this year’s World Cup.
“The French so genuinely love their rugby; there is going to be an unreal environment for the tournament,” O’Connor said.
Like he said, he’ll be doing everything to be on that plane. The clock is ticking on a career with some exquisite highs because he won’t be playing at 39 like the ageless Jimmy Gopperth.
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