James David O’Connor is all the rage in Australian rugby at the moment. And with very good reason. He is arguably the best back we have, which is saying something.
We have some other guys running around like Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper, Drew Mitchell, Will Genia, Digby Ioane, Berrick Barnes, Mark Gerrard, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Giteau, Mark Burgess, etc.
The “will he or won’t he sign with the Rebels” ongoing intrigue is taking on Dally Messenger proportions. Of course, when Messenger defected to rugby league at its dawn in 1907, it was said he both ensured the bright future of league and consigned union to the sidelines all at the same time.
Already the fate of the Perth Force, where he is currently playing, and the Melbourne Rebels, where he could be going, could be almost a matter of life or death for both clubs, eespecially the Force. For the sake of Australian rugby, I hope O’Connor remains with the Force. They need him more than the Rebels do.
James O’Connor was born on 5 July 1990 on the Gold Coast. His early childhood was in Sydney, where he played junior rugby league, and was a huge Parramatta Eels fan. Fortunately for union, O’Connor spent his last two years of high school at the famous Nudgee College in Brisbane, where he quickly adapted to union and represented Australian schoolboys in 2007.
In 2008, O’Connor was signed to the fledgling Force franchise and made his Wallabies debut later that year against Italy at 18 years and four months, the second youngest Australian to be selected for his country.
Incidentally, the youngest selected to represent Australia, was very similar to O’Connor in may ways. James Flynn was also a Nudgee boy, and Queensland born. He represented the Wallabies in 1914 at just 18 years and one month!
He actually captained the Wallabies in the 2nd test against the All Blacks, and remains our youngest captain ever. Like O’Connor, Flynn was a utility player, being able to cover scrumhalf, flyhalf and inside centre, where he played his 2 tests for Australia. His career was unfortunately cut short by the Great War. After the war, he decided to remain in Brisbane and play league rather than relocate to Sydney, where the only rugby union was played until 1928.
O’Connor is extremely fast over the 100 metres of a rugby pitch. He also possesses explosive speed off the mark, has great positional sense and anticipation, the product of being a utility player.
He is yet to find his ideal position, and I myself am at a loss to know where that might be. Inside centre seems his preferred option, so that might well be how it pans out.
But 30 years ago, there was another O’Connor playing for the Wallabies. And he was just as good, perhaps better than James.
Michael David O’Connor was born on 30 November 1960 at Nowra on NSW’s south coast. He attended Phillip College in Canberra, from where he won Wallaby selection in 1979 to Argentina.
He made his Test debut just one month before his 19th birthday, and played 12 Tests from 1979-82. After playing both Tests against Scotland in 1982, O’Connor declared his unavailability for the Wallabies tour of NZ and later in the year announced he had signed to play rugby league with St.George Dragons.
Of all the players who defected to league, no defection upset me more than that of O’Connor. I could even cope with Mark Ella retiring ridiculously early at age 25, but O’Connor was gone from union at just 21! He had only played six Tests with Mark Ella, and even crazier still, the midfield combo of Ella-Hawker-O’Connor only played in the 10-12-13 positions just four times, plus twice more with either O’Connor or Hawker playing on the wing.
This extraordinary trio appeared together just six times, yet their effect on the world of rugby would have you think they had been together in 50 or more Tests. As it was, Ella and Hawker each played only 25 Tests apiece.
O’Connor had been on the 1977/78 Australian schoolboys tour of Japan, UK, Ireland and Holland, where the names of many future great rugby union and league players like the Ella brothers, Michael O’Connor, Michael Hawker, Tony Melrose and Wally Lewis first came to our attention. O’Connor remains one of the most beautifully balanced runners on a rugby pitch I have ever seen.
Like James, he had explosive speed and acceleration, could step off both feet, and had a nose for the gap. Indeed, his nickname was ‘Snoz’, in reference to this prominent feature of his.
Watching O’Connor succeed spectacularly in league was a bittersweet experience. While it was gratifying to know that he could hold his own in rugby league as well as rugby union, it also reminded of how things might have been had he remained in union.
O’Connor took a while to find his feet in league. He played for St. George in the 1985 grand final, the Dragons being edged out 6-7 by the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. In this same year year, he also made both his State of Origin and Kangaroos debuts.
In his first State of Origin match, O’Connor scored all of NSW’s 18 points from two tries and five goals – in the rain. In his last year of Origin in 1991, again in teeming rain, he famously kicked a last minute sideline conversion to win the second Origin match.
In 1988, he scored tries in all three Origin matches. All up, O’Connor appeared in 19 out of a possible 22 Origin matches in 1985-91. He also represented the Kangaroos 17 times from 1985-91, being a member of Wally Lewis’ unbeaten 1986 touring side to Britain and France.
In 1987, O’Connor transferred to Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, immediately winning a premiership that year. He captained the Sea Eagles from 1990 until his retirement at the end of 1992. O’Connor didn’t take up goal-kicking in a big way until he transferred to league.
Like the aforementioned James O’Connor and James Flynn, Michael was extremely versatile, and was at home in any of the three-quarter wing or centre positions. In union, his best position was outside centre, while in league at rep level, he played equally brilliantly on the wing.
The sporting tragedy of the 1980s, is that Mark Ella, Wally Lewis and Michael O’Connor weren’t seen together in Wallaby jerseys playing at 10-12-13. It had probably happened on the schoolboys tour of 1977/78, and it would have been something to see circa 1981-87.
Throw in David Campese and Brendan Moon on the wings, Roger Gould at fullback and Nick Farr-Jones at scrumhalf, and you have a backline that was certified to grace the hallowed fields of heaven, let alone earth! The strength of a great side is often underlined by those who miss out. So consider this potential second backline from around the same time (mid-80s): Glen Ella, Peter Grigg or Matt Burke, Gary Ella or Andy Slack, Mike Hawker or Tony Melrose, Mitchell Cox, Michael Lynagh, Phil Cox.
Today, Michael is in charge of Australian rugby’s Sevens’ program, a very appropriate post for him to hold. Was Michael O’Connor better than James O’Connor?
I would say definitely yes, but then young James still has a decade of playing union and/or league ahead of him…