James O'Connor: "A clean slate for everyone" under Eddie Jones

Fri, Mar 17, 2023, 5:05 AM
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker

The young James O’Connor may have been preoccupied with staring into the crystal ball of his future six months from now. Perhaps, even a mirror. 

The 2023 version is different. 

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You can lead O’Connor to answers about his deep desire to represent the Wallabies at the World Cup in France but you’d be misrepresenting where his mind is at. 

At 32, he’s learnt to live in the moment and enjoy it because sport’s lack of guarantees dictates it is the best way to always be enjoying your rugby. 

For now, O’Connor’s gaze goes no further than Sunday’s return to the starting side for Sunday afternoon’s clash against the dangerous Fijian Drua at Suncorp Stadium. 

You see the excitement in his movements and mood because he’s playing without any injury troubles. 

He hit the gas and kept it on last weekend during his eye-catching second half against the ACT Brumbies in Canberra during Round Three of Super Rugby Pacific. 

That’s significant because he admitted for the first time today that not being able to hold his high-speed for longer was a demerit in the eyes of former Wallabies coach Dave Rennie. 

O’Connor knows the Fijians will be a tricky opponent at a dry-weather 3pm kick-off (Qld time) and with the confidence of last weekend’s upset of the Crusaders. 

“It’s good for the competition to have the Drua really improving. They are a very hard team to play because they’ve put structure into the chaos they throw at opponents,” O’Connor said after training at Ballymore today. 

O’Connor was coy about whether the Reds had to be more boring to win and move from set piece to set piece to limit the Fijians as much as possible. 

“The Fijians do play a certain way with some of the world’s best broken-field runners but we know our identity as well,” O’Connor said. 

“It comes down to doing fundamentals well. We want our set pieces to be strong and play with good field position but those are elements we work on to play well against any team. Nothing we do in the game plan will be foreign.” 

O’Connor has another rookie to tutor in the backline with strapping Taj Annan starting at inside centre at just 19. 

He has the variety of a big left boot and that’s not just how he kicks. He wears size 14 footy boots. 

There was discussion about whether O’Connor would play inside centre and Tom Lynagh kept at flyhalf before the call was made on the promising Annan. 

“There were chats around maybe changing my position but the call on Taj brings in a big No.12 with a good left boot and a shoulder ready for plenty of tackling,” O’Connor said. 

When the conversation shifted to the Wallabies, O’Connor did not get ahead of himself. 

“Look I’ve only played 68 minutes this season. I’m just focussing on Sunday,” he said. 

“Reaching our potential as Queensland is the goal because there has been ‘very good’ for periods of the past few years but fluctuations too. 

“The easy thing is to look ahead, look into the future. I’m enjoying the present moment.” 

O’Connor did say that the switch to Eddie Jones as Wallabies coach will hearten players across all five teams who might have thought their chances were shrinking or over. 

“It’s a clean slate for everyone but still early days,” he said. 

“I’ll admit myself I didn’t play my best footy last year. Being left out (of the Wallabies) did hurt. You can feel hard done by but it really lit a fire under me.” 

O’Connor is one of the few players on the Australian scene with experience of Jones’ coaching albeit for a short time. 

He'd just left school at Brisbane’s Nudgee College and had a handful of sessions with Jones in 2007 before the coach moved on from Queensland. 

O’Connor has fully recovered from ankle surgery. His sharpness off the mark and elusiveness have been noticeable in his two bench cameos since his return. 

If Jones is after experienced utility backs for his World Cup plans in 2023, O’Connor can still prove he has a place. Playing well at No.10 is the start. 

O’Connor is excited about a Reds backline brimming with five Wallabies, including one of Super Rugby’s hottest performers of 2023, Jordan Petaia.  

“I wouldn’t want to play our backline...and I wouldn't want to mark Suli (Vunivalu),” O’Connor said. 

“Having had injuries myself, I feel for Suli. It’s a tough mental game this. 

“He’s in really good shape now and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is really striding out over the next few games. 

“Jordie and Jock (Campbell) are both World Cup-class players. Jordie has really worked on his kicking game and he gains 60-70m at times. 

“Jock’s instincts for fullback and his study of the position are second to none.” 

O’Connor is just excited about what’s ahead...that’s Sunday not September.  

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