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)

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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
Brett McKay

Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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The Crowd Says (39)

  • February 23rd 2012 @ 5:40am
    kingplaymaker said | February 23rd 2012 @ 5:40am | ! Report

    There is something funny about the Rebels recruitment. Firstly last yea, despite having great riches to spend thanks to the ARU they did not use them, and instead collected a dirty dozen many of whom were either past it or nearing being past it. Why didn’t they spend more money and get a better team?

    This year the same is almost true. Given their pack was the weak point last year you would think they would have spent some money on two or three top forwards, but instead they spent all the money on backs, albeit good backs. They could have got just one of JOC and Kurtley Beale, and used the money spent on the other to buy as many as three top forwards.

    But of course JOC and Beale have serious publicity power and this leads one to conclude that the Rebels are more interested in advertising the game than winning. Perhaps they feel that as has been shown with the Force, so long as the team it competitive, the crowds will come: it doesn’t need to actually win the trophy.

    More important in their eyes perhaps is making the team known in an alien sporting landscaping and outshining the Storm.

    • February 23rd 2012 @ 8:19am
      hog said | February 23rd 2012 @ 8:19am | ! Report

      Should the aim of the rebels be to win the trophy in the early years( of course everyone goes out to win), but just buying a team for that purpose won’t work especially in Melbourne, look at the Storm a premiership in the early years did that really help league in Melbourne, No.
      Is not the whole purpose of the Rebels to improve rugby in Australia, for that to happen a young kid living in the burbs of Melbourne needs to choose Rugby over AFL.
      The rebels by their nature need to be a development team and genuine organic growth needs to be seen in Victoria for the game to expand in AFL territory.

    • Columnist

      February 23rd 2012 @ 8:52am
      Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2012 @ 8:52am | ! Report

      KPM, up front, I’d be pretty happy if there was no further mention of the Storm or the NRL presence in Melbourne. Neither have anything to do with this topic, and we don’t need yet another code war explosion.

      That said, your “..leads one to conclude that the Rebels are more interested in advertising the game than winning” comment is quite interesting. Of course the Rebels ultimately do want and need to build up a winning team, but equally, building up awareness of rugby in Victoria and Melbourne must also be a priority. It is, as you mention, difficult to tell if the signings of O’Connor and Beale is currently more about the advertising..

      • February 23rd 2012 @ 9:19am
        kingplaymaker said | February 23rd 2012 @ 9:19am | ! Report

        Brett I don’t think that point was introduced to provoke a code war explosion, nor would the other major code’s presence in Melbourne be at all irrelevant to the topic anyway.

        But if you want to do your own editing of Roarers’ comments, then in any case the point I was making doesn’t revolve around the NRL really anyway, but more the necessity of making some impact in this alien and competitive sporting market.

        Maybe in the long run that’s better as it means with more growth of the game they will produce more of their own players, and with bigger crowds have more money to buy better squads too.

        • Columnist

          February 23rd 2012 @ 9:59am
          Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2012 @ 9:59am | ! Report

          I’m not going to edit anyone’s comments, I just don’t want it going down any well worn path…

          • February 23rd 2012 @ 10:23am
            kingplaymaker said | February 23rd 2012 @ 10:23am | ! Report

            The same thing in fact, as it’s your article.

            In any case it was very far from being the main point of the original post.

            • February 23rd 2012 @ 7:32pm
              sheek said | February 23rd 2012 @ 7:32pm | ! Report

              KPM,

              The Rebels want to get their values, their traditions, their legacy, all bedded down before they think of winning the comp. I think this is eminently sensible.

              Having too much success too early can be counter-productive. Although this didn’t hurt the Brumbies.

              Anyway, as they say in the building game, get your footings & foundations right, & the rest will take care of itself, so to speak.

      • Roar Guru

        February 23rd 2012 @ 10:08am
        Redb said | February 23rd 2012 @ 10:08am | ! Report

        Brett,

        I think the signings of Beale & O’Connor will definitely create more interest in the Rebels. It already has.

        • Columnist

          February 23rd 2012 @ 10:19am
          Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2012 @ 10:19am | ! Report

          of course it has Red – who’s suggetsing it hasn’t?

          • Roar Guru

            February 23rd 2012 @ 3:18pm
            Redb said | February 23rd 2012 @ 3:18pm | ! Report

            I was agreeing with you. 🙂

  • February 23rd 2012 @ 7:07am
    Darwin Stubby said | February 23rd 2012 @ 7:07am | ! Report

    Interesting – 2 new pieces this morning 1 from Lord and this one and both focusing on what is the Aust obsession – the backline …. as long as that continues Aust rugby isn’t going to progress much – there needs to be development of a group of quality forwards … The Rebels have got 2 new blokes interested in cash to join the othe mercenaries (and one those – Beale – was purchased based more on 2010 form than 2011) … At least Le Bron got to the playoffs final – O’Connor is clearly not there for silverwear

    • February 23rd 2012 @ 7:35am
      mania said | February 23rd 2012 @ 7:35am | ! Report

      fully agree darwin. this obsession also shows in the wallabies. great backline but real average forwards.
      the paralel tween lebron and joc though is light years apart. lebrons decision was based on winning a championship and logical. joc? dunno how playing for a losing team will improve his brand. he’d have to shine majorly to stand out of a team of easy beats.
      i dont consider joc a midfeilder though. too much skill to be wasted there and too small for when u need someone to punch it up just to cross the adv line for next good front foot 2nd phase. but in the long run this will make him a better player being exposed to more positions.

      • February 23rd 2012 @ 8:23am
        Darwin Stubbie said | February 23rd 2012 @ 8:23am | ! Report

        Improving the brand is based on Melb being a bigger sports mkt than Perth and probably more billboards to splash his mug on – nothing to do with the quality of the side

      • Roar Guru

        February 23rd 2012 @ 10:56am
        Hoy said | February 23rd 2012 @ 10:56am | ! Report

        Mania, I don’t understand you saying O’Connor is too small for a 12. Look at his role on the wing for the Wallabies, and recently he was coming in at first or second receiver, and punching straight ahead into the line for good yards. He was doing a 12’s role with a winger’s number.

        Why not just make him the 12? It is where he started, and where he wants to be. The only reason he is a winger is because after picking the young bloke, they had to play him somewhere. Remember also, he was picked at 15 to protect him? Then he went to the wing from there. So he started at what… 17 or 18 in the centres for the Force, and did enough to be noticed.

        • February 23rd 2012 @ 12:49pm
          mania said | February 23rd 2012 @ 12:49pm | ! Report

          hoy – he has skill and speed but cant open up a hole where their isnt one. he can spot and exploit a half gap but create one thru heavy traffic? i dont think so.
          saying that though he has loads of talent and that can substitute for strength /power. where brute force doesnt work brains will.
          the reason he does so well coming thru the centres as a winger is because he’s smart enough to shed his man and have a numbers adv when popping up midfield.
          joc’s full of talent but 12 & 13 are traditionally power players. however saying that NZ have conradSmith as a 13 and he’s not bad on the world stage.
          i’m sure joc would do fine but would really like to see him in 10 where he’d get the ball regularly and can use his whole skill set more often. but like i said playing 12 will give him vast exp making him a better player than he is at the mo. and thatas scarey as he’s a pretty good player as it is.
          now i’ll stop because i’m lauding an aussie player and it feels wierd

          • February 23rd 2012 @ 3:48pm
            Justin said | February 23rd 2012 @ 3:48pm | ! Report

            Tim Horan, one of the great centres was a very similar build to JOC, in fact perhaps “skinnier”. No issue for him and JOC has power in spades. Dont let a lack of mass conclude he he not enough power…

            • February 24th 2012 @ 6:04am
              mania said | February 24th 2012 @ 6:04am | ! Report

              true justin. always believed that brains will beat brawn everyday of the week and twice on sundays. horan i reckon was heavier and stockier than joc though and probably not as fast. horan is one fo the greats though and would make the aus side in todays game.
              yeah i’m thinking of those occasions though where brains just wont help and u have to punch the ball up the middle over the adv line. those situations tho are pretty rare
              not convinced joc is a power runner but i could be proven wrong. in centres the d line is tight and your man will be coming at you front on with joc having nowhere to use his step. he’ll be more a sitting duck running out of centre and have to confront his man more often.

        • Columnist

          February 23rd 2012 @ 1:06pm
          Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2012 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

          Hoy, I was interested to see David Campese offering the same line of thought on JOC yesterday, that wing was his best spot. But I’d reckon he’s shown enough whenever he’s played second receiver (be that wearing 11, 12, or 15) to show that he could become very handy in that position.

          Just as he could for the Rebels..

          • February 23rd 2012 @ 3:20pm
            Big Steve said | February 23rd 2012 @ 3:20pm | ! Report

            Nice article brett,

            We generally have quite a few wingers in AUS rugby. We havent had anyone lock down the 12 Jersey consistnetly since Gits with Larkham. Hopefully JOC plays well there for the rebels, and we can find a long term 12. But that really relies on Cipriani holding himself together for an extended period.

            I thought you might have considered what will happen i the season really comes apart for the rebels. The significant defensive improvment in the trials hints that they should be ok. It will be interesting to see how Joc and Beale cope. especially if Cipriani goes off the rails. Hopefully it wont happen, but interesting none the less. And it wont take too many injuries for heads to drop.

            • Columnist

              February 23rd 2012 @ 4:04pm
              Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2012 @ 4:04pm | ! Report

              to be honest Steve, I’d like to see the Rebels do well before having to consider what will happen if things come apart! I don’t want to death-ride anyone if I can avoid it..

          • Roar Guru

            February 23rd 2012 @ 4:27pm
            Hoy said | February 23rd 2012 @ 4:27pm | ! Report

            I was interested to see that as well Brett. Of course Campo was the one winger to buck trends and played more like a current day league fullback than a union winger. O’Connor did that to a lesser extent, but I just can’t help but feel that if he learned 12 from the get go, both he, and the wallaby backline would be better for it now.

    • Columnist

      February 23rd 2012 @ 9:04am
      Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2012 @ 9:04am | ! Report

      Darwin, Mania, it’s rare that the Eds change much within my columns and even rarer still that I have cause to make mention of it. But in this case, a fairly savage edit of the opening paragraphs has possibly changed the intent and the point behind the LeBron reference completely.

      To clarify, my submission made little mention of winning Championships (and none for JOC at all), and made more of LeBron heading to South Beach to play with Wade and Bosh. The comparison is more about the way the decisions were made and publically played out, than of any suggestion of equal ability.

      And Darwin, I do take your point about a backline focus within Australian rugby, but how O’Connor goes with the Rebels is still a worthy pre-season talking point, wouldn’t you say?

  • February 23rd 2012 @ 7:20am
    Elisha Pearce said | February 23rd 2012 @ 7:20am | ! Report

    Agree with you Darwin. The rebels flashy new backs will need to be superhuman to overcome that forward pack!
    Btw LeBron James actually took less cash to play for Miami. And from what ove heard the lure of living on south beach plus the chance to play with 2 other all stars (dwayne wade and Chris bosh) are about equal with the desire to win.

  • Roar Rookie

    February 23rd 2012 @ 10:16am
    Stuart Fazakerley said | February 23rd 2012 @ 10:16am | ! Report

    Jeez Brett, you want royalties or something? 😛

    • Columnist

      February 23rd 2012 @ 10:18am
      Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2012 @ 10:18am | ! Report

      darn tootin’.. 💡

  • February 23rd 2012 @ 10:25am
    Blue said | February 23rd 2012 @ 10:25am | ! Report

    The pack will simply not be good enough for O’Connor to achieve much.

    • Columnist

      February 23rd 2012 @ 11:37am
      Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2012 @ 11:37am | ! Report

      Blues, it’s a decent point you make – the Force have shown that a quality backrow isn’t enough…

      • Roar Guru

        February 23rd 2012 @ 4:26pm
        Jiggles said | February 23rd 2012 @ 4:26pm | ! Report

        Apart from Pocock is the Force Backrow even quality? of the starting teams this week I wouldn’t have McCalman in front of Schatz/Samo, Palu, or Mowan/Vaea. additionally I wouldn’t have Hodgson(as a 6) before Higganbotham, Dennis, or Kimlin.

  • February 23rd 2012 @ 12:56pm
    Wilson said | February 23rd 2012 @ 12:56pm | ! Report

    “O’Connor was “taking his talents” to Super Rugby’s rookies, the Melbourne Rebels.” He had no choice as the Force ditched him when his obnoxious attitude got too much. No man is bigger than the club. The Force were right to ditch him. O’Connor had already turned down the Rebels when the Force pulled the pin on their offer. O’Connor had to go back to the Rebels with his tale between his legs and ask to accept the offer he had already rejected. He is arrogant and mismanaged by his nightmare father. Good luck with Brand O’Connor Rebels. He is your star and your issue now.

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