James O’Connor must be the long-term Wallaby number 10

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    Australia's James O'Connor is tackled by Wales' Toby Faletau. AP Photo/Rob Griffith

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    It wasn’t a perfect 10 out of 10 performance by James O’Connor in the Wallabies’ (60) monstering of the Barbarians (11) at Twickenham. More like an 8 out of 10.

    There was a pass that went astray in a planned move and occasionally the youngster took the ball into heavy traffic instead of feeding his outside backs.

    But O’Connor did enough, more than enough I would argue, to establish his claim as the future Wallaby number 10 up to RWC 2015. The nuggety, quicksilver stepper with the flair to make a dazzling break or put in an astute chip kick (although I hate to see them) has the potential to be the true successor of Stephen Larkham and Mark Ella.

    There are no obvious weaknesses in his game.

    He has the confidence that all fine ball-players need to boss their team around the field. He has all the skills, handling, passing, kicking and tackling (unlike you know who!) He is rarely injured. He enjoys the combat aspects of the game almost as much as the running and passing parts.

    He kicked seven conversions, a penalty and a field goal which somehow went over, even though the ball in flight looked like a pheasant that had been savaged with a direct hit. The field goal was shrewdly taken when the Wallabies needed points at the time.

    In sum, then, he has the complete package of skills. All he needs now is the experience in the role of a play-making number 10, for the Wallabies and for the Melbourne Rebels.

    This assessment, of course, means that Quade Cooper’s posting as the Wallaby number 10 is over.

    Let’s be straight about one thing about Cooper. He is a brilliant ball-runner and he has magical passing skills. At his best he is a gold-plated match-winner. But … he doesn’t tackle. He cracks up under pressure, or at least he did during RWC 2011. He doesn’t seem to take advice. And his commitment to rugby union and the Wallabies is suspect.

    This last proviso is damaging for Cooper as far as his future with the Wallabies is concerned. He has signed a contract, after delaying to gouge out the best terms he could (and this is understandable), that ends in 2012. All the talk is that he and Sonny Bill Williams will be offered as a package to a NRL side for 2013.

    If their asking price is too high, there is the possibility that the Cooper/Williams package will be offered to a rugby union club, presumably in France where the money seems to be these days.

    From a rugby point of view, Cooper remains a brilliant player who you would want in your team. The best position for him with the Reds is clearly at number 10. But in Test match rugby where the marking is tougher and the play less open than in Super Rugby, I reckon that Cooper should be played on the wing for the Wallabies.

    He is a brilliant broken field runner, probably the best since David Campese. He can come into the line when the Wallabies are on attack, much like Shane Williams. And on the wing, he would not be confronted too often with big forwards charging down and through his channel as he is at number 10.

    As for the Wallaby performance against the Barbarians, you would have to say that this was a splendid and record victory.

    The Barbarians, after all, were coming off victories against the All Blacks in 2009 and the Springboks in 2010. They were coached by Robbie Deans’ bete noir, the avuncular Graham Henry.

    A few minutes before half-time the score line was 13 – 6 with the Barbarians turning down several kicks at goal and also bombing a couple of tries. Then there was a Wallaby try just before the break to give the visitors some clear air.

    This try came from a stupid kick down field by Isaia Toeava. And was one of several by Barbarians players, including pathetic efforts by Danny Cipriani, a player who looks as if he has lost any spark of rugby genius he might have had.

    Berrick Barnes was guilty, too, of kicking away the ball with Waratahs-like aimless kicking. This instinct to kick rather than run or pass that Barnes has acquired since he started playing with the Waratahs is the reason why I no longer rate him as a contender for the inside centre position with the Wallabies.

    I know that Mark Ella is a Barnes fan. But Ben Tapuai’s direct running seems, to me at least, to be a better fit for an attacking Wallaby backline, going forward (literally and metaphorically).

    Henry made seven replacements in the Barbarians line-up. The changes did not work. The Wallabies scored four tries in 13 minutes and ran away with the game.

    Still, as the adage says, you can only play as well as you are allowed to play. The Wallabies were slightly rusty to begin with. And Will Genia occasionally allowed the ball to sit for too long under the feet of the forwards at ruck time in the Luke Burgess manner. But once the Wallabies got their patterns going they played some irresistible attacking rugby.

    What I liked about their play was the enthusiasm they brought to their running. Even Lachie Turner was geared up to race away whenever he got a chance.

    We want this high-speed, high-skill, hard-tackling and committed play on and off the ball to be revealed again next Saturday against Wales.

    And with, hopefully, O’Connor in the box seat running the attacks, we should see another convincing victory to mark the end of an occasionally triumphant (the Reds winning the Super Rugby title and the Wallabies the Tri-Nations) and sometimes disappointing (third place in RWC 2011) rugby season.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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