What to do with James O'Connor
Much like the nation’s famous indigenous hunting weapon, some of Australian rugby’s most prolific talent have boomeranged back home after swinging through stints in the opposing hemisphere. Will Genia, Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper, Matt Toomua and now James O’Connor have all swerved their way back Down Under over the last two years, with all but Cooper firmly back in the Wallaby picture. The latest to be tempted home by head coach Michael Cheika, O’Connor, has raised a curious narrative.
After two years in the English Premiership with Sale Sharks O’Connor, 29, is not merely subject to the question of whether he could/should make Australia’s final 31-man World Cup squad but where exactly he fits into the Wallabies’ backline. If ever there was a selection puzzle to be solved from afar, it is the case of O'Connor.
During his international career, the only position O’Connor has not featured is scrum-half, having played in every jersey with double digits on the back.
Of his 44 Tests between 2008 and 2013, 22 of O’Connor’s caps have come on the wing, with 21 starts and one bench appearance between 2009 and 2013. After making his debut as a substitute against Italy in 2008, the Southport-born utility back has featured 13 times at fullback, starting in the backfield 11 times. Five bench appearances in the midfield and four Tests starts at fly-half complete an impressive array of international displays.
James O'Connor's 44-cap Test career
With 35 of O'Connor's 44 international appearances coming in the outside backs and his most recent period almost exclusively in the midfield for Sale, the task of predicting exactly where the former Toulon and Reds man fits into Cheika’s backline is almost labyrinthine in its nature.
Featuring most prominently at inside centre for Sale, O’Connor doesn’t fit the bill of the playmaking fly-half-come-centre that the Wallabies have profited from over the last few years through either of Beale or Toomua. Nor does he serve in the crash-bang-wallop-offload-score style of Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani, despite putting on significant muscle mass after arriving at Sale from the sunny South of France.
Between these added kilos, put on in effort to better withstanding the increased physical nature of the Premiership and heavy traffic to contend with at twelve, and the inescapable ageing process that even sports stars' finely-tuned bodies cannot evade, a starting role in a traditionally fast-paced, hot-stepping Australian back three seems equally as ill-suited to the status quo.
Away from the field, there is O’Connor’s track history of off-field misdemeanour. As a result of being stood down by Rugby Australia in 2013 after an incident at Perth Airport involving alcohol whilst on Wallaby duty and his Paris arrest in 2017 alongside former All Black lock Ali Williams on suspicion of attempting to buy drugs, it is reported that O’Connor’s latest contract with the Reds contains a behavioural clause. While we all make mistakes, and those exposed to sporting fame at an age as young as O’Connor was after becoming the youngest Super Rugby debutant in history at just 17, there will always be a certain amount of risk and/or distrust in the back of a coach’s mind, however subliminal.
Cheika, however, plainly believes that the utility back’s time spent reinventing himself whilst in Manchester has done Australian rugby’s former bad boy a world of good.
It seems the last dregs of the wide-eyed boy that burst onto the Test arena over a decade ago were cast away when O'Connor shaved off the shock of peroxide blond hair he fashioned when arriving in Sale in 2017; or at least, that was the intent.
O’Connor has made no secret of his efforts to return to the beaten track, going back to his roots and working with various lifestyle coaches. By all reports, the Australian star has invested a huge amount of his time and finances into getting himself 'back to basics'. Back to a place where a return to regular international rugby is a tangible reality. And having been flown out to join the Wallabies’ training camp in South Africa following the birth of Marika Koroibete’s second child, albeit on a train only basis, it certainly seems like it’s paid off.
Like the Springboks, the Wallabies have ended the torrid run that followed their appearance in the 2015 World Cup final and would be loath to rip up the playbook to accommodate the returning star in their side. Although equally, there is an argument to be made that in sixth place in World Rugby's rankings Australia are in need of something more to break back into the top five.
The arrivals of ructious second row duo Izack Rodda and Adam Coleman, hooker Tolu Latu and the mobile tighthead prop pairing Allan Alaalatoa and Taniela Tupou have played a notable role in putting some bite back into Australia’s pack. In the backline, Genia and Beale have reignited the strutting, pagentine attacking spark that the rest of the world has a love-hate relationship with. Love to watch it when it's on, hate it when Beale is stealing through the gap in your defence, armed with a step like a tango dancer and a smart-alec grin stretched across his face.
But, for all the gnarly tackles and carries in the pack or scintillating playmaking from Genia and Beale, a ship-steadying presence is still somewhat lacking for the Wallabies. When the going gets tough, Cheika's side is far from steadyhanded. The return to fitness of David Pocock will go some way to aiding in that particular endeavour for the men with lower numbers on their backs, but Cheika has been looking overseas for the same dynamic in the backline.
Former Tigers man and now Rebels centre/fly-half Matt Toomua was the first part of this so far three-part equation, coming back to provide much-needed depth in that crucial 10-12 axis to which the Waratahs’ Bernard Foley and Beale are so pivotal. Cheika’s second move came in the recruitment of Exeter Chiefs and former Brumbies scrum-half Nic White. Quite the contrast to Genia’s often sublime attacking instincts, White has rounded off his game quite nicely while playing with the 2017 Premiership champions over the last two years. As a game manager and a box kicker of international pedigree, White has contributed an unheralded role in the Chiefs’ transition at fly-half from the steady Ulsterman Gareth Steenson to the exciting young Joe Simmonds.
It would seem that the latest and third part of Cheika’s quest for stabilising factors when the going gets tough could, fascinatingly, be O’Connor. The exciting attacking forays that saw him rise to immediate fame during the noughties are far from the game O’Connor has brought to the AJ Bell over the last two seasons. Instead, he offers himself as a sort of conduit alongside either of America’s AJ MacGinty or South Africa’s Robert du Preez at fly-half and the rest of the Sharks’ backline.
From what we’ve seen of this bulkier, older version of O’Connor the traditional all-out attacking game of an Australian schoolboy prodigy is all but gone. Perhaps it is merely hibernating behind the layers put down by the life coaching he has so heavily bought into and the tighter style of play the Premiership demands when compared to Super Rugby. Alongside his history of playing in any jersey internationally with more than one digit on his back, there is plenty to suggest Cheika intends to employ O’Connor from the bench next to White and either alongside or instead of Toomua.
Michael Cheika has plenty of ambitious attacking heads at his disposal, but experienced backs closer to 30 than 25 are at somewhat of a premium.
As a centre, O’Connor would be a less exciting, yet more consistent option than most others at Cheika's disposal. As a winger, he could operate in the high workrate role we’ve seen Eddie Jones deploy Exeter’s Jack Nowell so often for England. As a fullback, while he would certainly present a much slower option than preferable, he has proven with Sale that he’s unafraid of taking on the rough stuff in defence and could plug a gap should injury force a backline reshuffle - and his kicking game is at least onpar with Folau's showings, if not better.
Now, Cheika, his fellow coaches and senior players will answer the big questions behind closed doors. Has Australia’s prodigal son returned with a mature head on his shoulders? Does he still have the speed and footwork to add to his 35 appearances in the back three? These unanswered questions are perhaps the reason O’Connor is forced to serve in merely a ‘train only’ role in South Africa.
We ask where O’Connor is going to fit into the Australian squad, perhaps it’s both nowhere and everywhere. O'Connor's experience, utility and a lack of speciality could see him serve as Cheika's positional safety net. Barring injuries, he may scarcely feature for the Wallabies, but a man of his utility could be a rather unique way of helping steady Australia's ship.