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

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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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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    The Crowd Says (71)

    • November 28th 2011 @ 6:38am
      RAF said | November 28th 2011 @ 6:38am | ! Report

      Notwithstanding that the Wallabies were playing the Baa Baa’s I found it somewhat odd that the Pommy crowd booed O’Connor when he took the early penalty option and the field goal. This coming from a rugby nation that perfected this style of boring rugby.

      • November 28th 2011 @ 7:28am
        allblackfan said | November 28th 2011 @ 7:28am | ! Report

        it’s part of the BaaBaa tradition, about going for tries.
        Crowds at these games don’t want to see penalty goals and will boo even their own side when they take one. As for the field goal, one English journo noted that it was the first time in 63 years of baabaa rugby that a field goal was kicked.

        • November 28th 2011 @ 9:13am
          shahsan said | November 28th 2011 @ 9:13am | ! Report

          First drop goal in this particular fixture ie Baabaas vs Australia. I remember NZ’s Eddie Dunn (if that’s his name) scoring one against the Baabaas one year to win the game.

          • November 28th 2011 @ 10:48am
            jameswm said | November 28th 2011 @ 10:48am | ! Report

            The BaaBaas took the penalty option early too.

            • November 28th 2011 @ 8:25pm
              The Other White Wendell said | November 28th 2011 @ 8:25pm | ! Report

              and it was booed too

          • November 28th 2011 @ 9:03pm
            Sonny said | November 28th 2011 @ 9:03pm | ! Report

            Eddie Dunn drop kicked in the final minute to beat another European team in 1978… but it wasn’t the Baabaas, because Eddie Dunne’s only tour with the ABs was in 1978… BUT they never played the Baabaas that year

            • November 29th 2011 @ 2:43pm
              shahsan said | November 29th 2011 @ 2:43pm | ! Report

              Sorry, you are wrong, Sonny.
              From a Northlands rugby website: “In 1978 Eddie (Dunn) gained selection in the All Black team to tour the British Isles, where he played 9 matches scoring three tries and drop-kicking two goals – one of which being the vital last minute kick that brought victory over the Barbarians.”
              From the match day program for Baabaas vs ABs, 1978: http://www.rugby-relics.com/images/zu/63.jpg

    • November 28th 2011 @ 6:41am
      Ruckin Oaf said | November 28th 2011 @ 6:41am | ! Report

      He doesn’t seem to take advice – He seemed to take advice ok when playing for the Reds. Followed the game plans to a T as shown by wins against the Stormers etc

    • November 28th 2011 @ 8:19am
      soapit said | November 28th 2011 @ 8:19am | ! Report

      settle down fellas, see how he goes next week against a team that have played together before.

      might be ready by 2015 but coopers not done with yet.

    • November 28th 2011 @ 8:30am
      Patstick said | November 28th 2011 @ 8:30am | ! Report

      I think O,connor showed enough to be groomed (note i said groomed as not the finished article just yet) as Spiro said all the ingrediants are there for a formidable fly half, plus he’s young and already with thirty something caps! I like the comparison to a young Carter (again note i said YOUNG Carter, not the Carter at the top of his game). He will need to play for Melbourne at fly half, leave Cipriani in England and beg a premiership team to buy him. AAC was in fine form too. Although it has to be said this was a dissappointing BaaBaas team performance, and the welsh will not allow the Wallabies such easy possesion. But with oconnor AAC and Dibgy leading this backline, and pocock and horwill leading the forward pack the Wallabies have some great foundations to build a lasting Wallaby side that will challenge the best the world can deliver. On a side note, the English commentators are atrocious!!!

      • November 28th 2011 @ 10:26am
        Red Kev said | November 28th 2011 @ 10:26am | ! Report

        I thought the English commentators were very amusing. I particularly liked the guy who was bagging Rocky Elsom even though he wasn’t there (he did segue into it on the back of praising Higginbotham’s performance so I guess it was justified).

      • November 28th 2011 @ 1:24pm
        Rowan said | November 28th 2011 @ 1:24pm | ! Report

        English commentators atrocious? How so? They are way better then the Australian ones who are the most biased in the world, and know nothing about any other rugby team but themselves. Watching them do the world cup was cringeworthy, especially Brendan Cannon who continualy failed to pronounce names correctly eg. Francis Tran-Duck.

        • November 28th 2011 @ 2:23pm
          soapit said | November 28th 2011 @ 2:23pm | ! Report

          you obviously didnt watch the RL 4N on nine mate, those english league commentators will challenge anyone for being biased.

          • November 28th 2011 @ 7:01pm
            Rowan said | November 28th 2011 @ 7:01pm | ! Report

            English league ones tend to be because we never win anything lol. But the ones on Sky I rekon are some of the best in the world.

            • November 28th 2011 @ 7:52pm
              mattamkII said | November 28th 2011 @ 7:52pm | ! Report

              two words..

              Brian Moore.

              Never has there been a worse caller in the game.

              • November 28th 2011 @ 11:54pm
                Rowan said | November 28th 2011 @ 11:54pm | ! Report

                Haha i like how eddie Butler has to settle him down all the time, he seems to struggle to talk properly sometimes eh. Still I think the Aussies are the worst.

    • November 28th 2011 @ 8:37am
      Jack said | November 28th 2011 @ 8:37am | ! Report

      O’Connor is head and shoulders above Cooper as a 10. He takes up the space in front of him. He is brave – his effort at the contact in the WC puts the forwards to shame and most importantly he does not trasfer pressure. The backline as close to the best Australia can put on the pitch. Pity it took injuries for Deans to pick the right team. Cooper is a liability in test football.

      • November 28th 2011 @ 8:54am
        johnny-boy said | November 28th 2011 @ 8:54am | ! Report

        Jack it always takes Deans injuries to pick a better team. He’s otherwise too busy looking after his mediocre pet projects, trying too appear like the super coach he deludedly thinks he is – but obviously isnt. As an indicator of how the Wallabies are travelling I’d say this game indicated zilch. Next week will be more interesting.

    • Roar Guru

      November 28th 2011 @ 8:58am
      stillmissit said | November 28th 2011 @ 8:58am | ! Report

      I am a fan of QC’s free running style, I hate his inability to tackle, I like his kicking game but I really hate his attitude.

      Quade has some competition and that is a good thing. He could easily recuperate from this injury and forget about the RWC as an aberration in a brilliant career but this is not so. He has lots of work to do if he wants to hold onto to the 5/8 spot and presumably his future bank balance. So similar to his hero Carlos Spencer in terms of skill set but so like SBW in his attitude to sport and working the deal.

      The wonder kid proves there is nothing he cant do – should we give him a run at prop?????

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