O’Connor must deliver for the Rebels
Wallabies wing James O'Connor is tackled during the IRB Rugby World Cup Semi-Final between Australia and New Zealand at Eden Park, Auckland, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011. The All Blacks defeated the Wallabies 20-6. (AAP Image/AFP, William West)
In 2010, NBA superstar and global basketball phenomenon, Lebron James, told fans that he was walking away from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The reason: to win championships.
An Ohio local, Cleveland had hung their hopes on James delivering a championship. However, the lure of championship glory proved too strong for James (along with a considerable amount of cash).
Only roughly twelve months later, Australian rugby had a similar situation. Young Wallaby whiz kid, James O’Connor, confirmed his impending departure from the Western Force, saying, “I want what’s best for myself and building my rugby brand.”
While there was less spectacle than LeBron’s announcement, O’Connor’s comments had the same audacity and confident arrogance. O’Connor was “taking his talents” to Super Rugby’s rookies, the Melbourne Rebels.
The Force were obviously and rightly devastated, having carefully crafted O’Connor from schoolboy protégé into the bright young thing of Australian professional rugby.
He was the super-talented utility that the club’s fortune could be, and was being built around, and who every young rugby kiddie in Perth wanted to be like. It undoubtedly helped that O’Connor still looked like a classmate.
The Rebels, on the other hand, were cock-a-hoop. With a smooth sales pitch and the corporates of the Victorian capital pooling together a suitable shedload of cash, not to mention securing good mate Kurtley Beale, they had their man.
And now it’s time for O’Connor to deliver.
But it’s actually a funny situation that O’Connor and the Rebels – and Beale, for that matter – find themselves in.
The Rebels are still only in the their second year of existence, and after a inaugural season produced the wooden spoon and the worst defence in recent memory, no-one really expects much of them again in 2012.
Early season predictions have them finishing anywhere from an optimistic eighth overall, to a harsh-but- maybe-fair consecutive spoon.
Even the Rebel Army, the noisiest bunch of supporters in Australia (and who seem to have spent the off-season quoting me in various mediums), have been strangely silent on their expectations.
But surely 2012 isn’t going to be another year of “winning doesn’t really matter to us”? Surely the time to move on from the “only just starting” attitude is now?
If the Rebels are going to become a serious prospect in future Super Rugby seasons, then they can’t just be content to exist, as it seems the Lions and to a degree, the Cheetahs have done over the competition’s history.
Simply put, the Rebels need to start playing smarter, defending tougher and more importantly, remove the inconsistency that plagued them last year. A win or gallant loss would invariably lead to a thumping loss the following week, and that’s not exactly what you’d want to build a club around.
For O’Connor, that means trying to do less for himself on the field, and placing more trust in his outside men. The Rebels want him to play inside centre to a) take the attacking pressure off Danny Cipriani and b) to provide more attacking options and unpredictability into the midfield.
It shouldn’t be hard to be that attacking linkman. For all of Cipriani’s defensive frailties, his vision and passing game is among the very best in the Australian conference.
Cipriani will easily be able to get the ball to O’Connor where it needs to be. From there, it’s up to O’Connor to capitalise on the opportunities created for him.
With the likes of evergreen Rebels skipper, Stirling Mortlock, Beale and the likes of Mitch Inman, Lloyd Johansson, Lachie Mitchell, and Cooper Vuna out wide, there’s plenty of attack. Richard Kingi and Mark Gerrard also provide strike-power.
The Rebels threw bucketloads of cash at O’Connor to make him the main man. It’s time for him to live up to our expectations and his abundant talent.
Super Rugby aside, 2012 also needs to be the season in which O’Connor lays out his Wallaby aspirations too. If he does indeed want to see more midfield action in a gold jersey, then it all starts with a standout season in the navy blue.
So there might not be a lot of pressure or expectation on you, James, but if you are serious about building your rugby brand, you’ll shine in Melbourne. Everyone is watching.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport