O'Connor reflects on time with the Western Force

· Super Rugby - AU
by Jim Tucker

For late maturing Queensland Reds captain James O’Connor, his days at the Western Force as a 17-year-old seem like two or three lifetimes ago.

No one in Perth at that time would have picked him as a first-time Super Rugby captain at 30 or one with a 3-0 record with the hottest team in the competition.

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O’Connor was once a player who had more labels than a cheap fashion house and many just as unflattering. Remember "Brand O'Connor" and others? Now he’s defying them and building a whole new narrative about his career.

It’s never too late as they say.

The clever No.10 scooted down the short side, skipped by a defender and set up a wonderful try for code convert Suliasi Vunivalu against the Brumbies last weekend in Canberra.

It was a wonderful snapshot of the new O’Connor. He’s playing an unselfish game as play director at the Reds but as varied points of attack emerge in his side he can make those inroads because he’s getting double-teamed less by defences.

It was a skilful moment in an epic match of momentum shifts and classy rugby, a 40-38 classic that rugby fans would like repeated every round.

Few will now remember that a cherubic O’Connor, with streaked hair, made his Force debut against the Reds at Suncorp Stadium in 2008 at just 17.

One thing is certain, his mode of transport to Saturday’s clash between the sides at the same venue will be different.

“I was 17, living in a house in Perth with best mates and we all had little (motorised) scooters to cruise around on,” O’Connor recalled with a smile.

“So, I’m off to final training on the scooter with two big bags on my shoulders before the flight to Brisbane after the session.

“The scooter breaks down so I had to get a pushbike, still with the two big bags, to cycle several kilometres to training. I had teammates drive me having a good laugh.

James O'Connor in action for the Queensland Reds during First Nations round of Harvey Norman Super Rugby AU | Getty Images

“Playing for the Force seems like plenty of lifetimes ago, more than one or two.

“I have fond memories of playing over there just after I left school and I enjoyed the rugby.”

O’Connor doesn’t show great emotion after victories but he did after that droughtbreaker in Canberra.

He buzzed into the face of fellow Wallaby Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and the big forward’s push was one of celebration.

"Lukhan and I wanted that very badly. It was a ‘we did it’ moment and now it’s back to the drawing board for the next one,” O’Connor said.

It meant that much to beat the competition’s standard-setters on their home patch for the first time since 2014.

“It started after the grand final (loss to the Brumbies) last year. It hurt a lot and we spoke in the lead-up of rectifying that,” O’Connor said.

“In Canberra, that was the most connected we’ve been as a team.”

O’Connor is relishing the gear changes this settled Reds team is capable of under attack coach Jim McKay and boss Brad Thorn.

Across the 80 minutes there were sweeping attacks at high tempo, clever kicking, the brutal scrum authority of Taniela Tupou and Co in the final 20 minutes and slower passages where the forwards took charge.

“It’s always been part of the progression to have more than one structure in attack and more than a few set plays,” O’Connor said.

“It’s refreshing to have different ways to play in phase shape. I’ve got to be good enough to spot where the space is.”

O’Connor warned that the Force were a dangerous side, especially now new recruits have played three matches together to improve their teamwork.

“They have a lot of senior guys who know how to win games but they also know the fundamentals really well so it’s hard to find space on them,” O’Connor said.

“The Kahuis, Kearneys, Tevita Kuridrani steering the ship...I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

The inadvertent misstep for rookie captains is to devote energy aplenty to the team while giving less attention to your own game.

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O’Connor has been conscious of working on his own play: “The coaches are making sure I'm serving myself as well because it’s easy to get clouded. I know my own job is still to give 110 per cent to delivering the game plan.”

There may be two more Reds-Brumbies clashes this year to rev up a rivalry that has always laboured because of the one-sided dominance of the Canberra side for most of the past 25 years.

“We were on, they were on and it really came down to the finish line. In terms of Oz rugby, you’d hope the supporters of both sides were happy with that one,” O’Connor said.

Indeed. More please.

The Queensland Reds will look to continue their winning ways on Saturday 20 March when they take on the Western Force at Suncorp Stadium kicking off at 7:45pm AEDT, LIVE on Stan Sport and 9Gem. Click here to purchase tickets.