2022-04-08 21:00:00

Ben Darwin will tell you until the cows come home: World Cups are won and lost on combinations.

As the former Wallaby turned analytics guru puts it, winning and losing comes largely down to “cohesion”.

And for James O’Connor, his hopes of wearing the No10 jersey against England in July and ultimately at next year’s World Cup could come down to that notion.

Think Michael Lynagh-Tim Horan-Jason Little in 1991 and George Gregan and Stephen Larkham in 1999.

More recently the Stormers-learned Springboks side of 2019 and the heavy Saracens contingent for Eddie Jones’ England, which has slowly broken away and had a direct consequence on the scoreboard.

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Stephen Larkham and George Gregan played together at the Brumbies and the Wallabies during their careers.Source: News Corp Australia

For O’Connor, who is contending with Quade Cooper and up-and-comers Noah Lolesio and Ben Donaldson, his hopes of starting could come down to the development of halfback Tate McDermott and backs Hunter Paisami and Jordan Petaia.

All four players are in the mix to start for the Wallabies, but equally could miss out to the Brumbies trio of Nic White, Len Ikitau and Tom Banks, with Lolesio another who will hope he is firmly back in the reckoning soon and challenging O’Connor and Cooper after a stint on the sidelines.

According to Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, O’Connor is a “frontrunner” to wear the No 10 jersey.

“James has been excellent and very influential in the form of the Reds, which is great to see, Rennie said of O’Connor.

“And he had a big year last year as well and then got injured prior to the French series and took a long time to come back from that, so he’s certainly a frontrunner.

“Quade’s still an option for us and he was excellent last year. And we’ve got Noah, who’s obviously injured at the moment, too; Ben Donaldson, who’s injured at the moment, we would like to see those young kids playing as much footy as possible.”

James O’Connor has been in strong form for the Reds since re-joining the Super Rugby franchise in 2020. Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

O’Connor is not quite as confident he is the “frontrunner”, though.

“Yeah, maybe,” he quipped during an interview on the Gold Coast as the Wallabies’ 40-man training squad broke away after a three-day camp.

All signs point to Japan-based Cooper, who is currently injured, starting against England.

O’Connor recognises that, too.

“It’s the same as him, it’s nothing personal, if he’s the 10, cool, I’ll support him, and if I’m the 10, he’ll support me,” he said.

“I’m not going to lie, I want to play 10 for the Wallabies.

“If it’s another position, cool as well, I’m not so caught up on positions now.

“Not that I’m more relaxed, there’s just so many different ways to play the game and different combinations. Against England, we could go with a powerful pack or with more speed, there’s so many different ways to do it.”

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said James O’Connor is the favourite to wear the No.-10 jersey against England. Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

Where everything turned to gold for Cooper during his surprising — and fairytale — return to the Wallabies last year, O’Connor’s Test season failed to get off the ground after being a standout during the Super Rugby season.

He missed the entire 2-1 series against France and then missed the four Tests against New Zealand, too. By the time he returned to the field, Cooper had been given a crack and won matches.

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For O’Connor, the reborn playmaker, was forced to buy his time on the bench and was limited to the scraps.

A handful of minutes here or there, often with Samu Kerevi, the key to the Wallabies’ change of fortunes, on the bench after being managed.

Then, without anything to fall back on, O’Connor was thrown the keys of the castle after Cooper pulled out of the spring tour but the Sat-Nat was taken out by Kerevi’s withdrawal.

Quade Cooper didn’t lose a game for the Wallabies in 2021. Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

The Wallabies lost three straight Tests in November and by O’Connor’s own admission, he did not play well, but he was not helped by crucial yellow cards in all three Tests and an early red to Rob Valetini against Wales.

“A lot of learnings, a lot of frustrations,” O’Connor responded, after being asked to reflect on a whirlwind 2021.

“I was out for so long that it took me a while to get my flow back. Training’s training, but you get your rhythm and you build your flow from playing games.’’

“I felt we couldn’t get in the games, especially the Scotland and England games, we dropped the ball 20 times I think, we were ill-disciplined and from my own personal game I wasn’t taking the ball to the line as much as I normally like to and that was just a balance of the game-plan, my confidence and the connection with those around you.”

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James O’Connor was left frustrated during his spring tour. Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

O’Connor’s tour was not helped by lack of connection at halfback and fullback, while recalled centre Paisami too struggled to make an impression early on before finishing strongly.

Petaia, too, shapes as a crucial player in O’Connor’s quest to drive the Wallabies forward.

The 22-year-old has at last been granted his wish to play fullback after years of fighting injuries and being swapped between positions in the backline.

And while the immensely talented player, who started at outside centre against England in the World Cup quarter-final as a 19-year-old, has struggled for consistency and only just moved to the position, O’Connor believes his ceiling is so high that he has his Reds teammate as the “bolter” to start in July.

“I think he’s going to another level,” O’Connor said of Petaia.

“Just his ability to beat players one-on-one, his kicking game is growing, he’s now kicking 65m which is opening up a lot of space, and I think his ability in the air, he’s probably the best in the air of any of them.”

James O’Connor’s bolter for the No.15 jersey in his Reds teammate Jordan Petaia. Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

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Source by [graycupnews.com]

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