At 20-7 up approaching the final half an hour of play on Saturday night at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the next great test of the highly-regarded Melbourne Rebels was upon us.
Almost a year to the day James O’Connor stunned the rugby world by scoring a Test hat-trick in his run-on debut, the teenage sensation demanded a return to Wallabies fullback duties with another three-try pearler.
Playing for the Australian Barbarians, O’Connor took just 48 minutes to put incumbent Kurtley Beale on notice by bagging 25 points in a brilliant individual display in a 28-all draw over England.
When he was given an early night by coach Robbie Deans, the Barbarians led 25-13 at Perth’s ME Bank Stadium.
In the ensuing 32 minutes, England stormed back with 15 consecutive points before Berrick Barnes tied the scores with a 76th-minute penalty goal.
Barbarians co-captain Barnes had the chance to steal the match but his 45m penalty attempt after the fulltime hooter sailed just wide to the right.
If Deans had already settled on Beale, coming off two tries against Fiji, to retain his place in the No.15 jersey for Saturday night’s Test against England, O’Connor’s Tuesday night performance is sure to make him think again.
In scoring his hat-trick, and kicking four from five with the boot, the 19-year-old showed all the talent that had captivated the rugby fraternity last year when he stormed onto the international arena at 18.
Whereas he merely had to take the last pace for three simple tries against Italy on June 13 last year at Canberra Stadium, O’Connor did far more to the appreciation of his home crowd of 10,208.
Only the third try of his hat-trick – when he picked up a grubber from halfback Josh Valentine in the left corner in the 44th minute – was an elementary affair.
O’Connor’s two scorching first-half tries turned the game in the Barbarians’ favour after the tourists dominated the early part of the opening match of their five-game Australasian trip.
England, courtesy of two penalty goals to Ollie Barkley, led 6-0 before the O’Connor show began on the back of some strong work from lock Mitch Chapman, centre Will Chambers and flanker Ben McCalman.
O’Connor’s first try in the 22nd minute saw him find the line with three defenders hanging off him.
Eight minutes later he produced a lovely show-and-go which completely fooled inside centre Barkley and he blazed over untouched from 30m out.
He rubbed salt into England’s wounds with the conversion from touch, his first of two from wide out.
England managed to reap some reward from their forward superiority by hitting back just before the break with hooker Lee Mears scurrying over after a concerted build-up.
In a major concern before the Test, the Barbarians’ inexperienced front-row was completely outmuscled throughout and when prop Laurie Weeks was sin-binned in the 69th minute the door was opened to the English, with No.8 Dan Ward-Smith and winger Matt Banahan both crossing with the home side down to 14 men.