Reaction has been swift and varied to shock reports that James O’Connor has reportedly approached the Chiefs about playing in Super Rugby Aotearoa next year.
The incumbent Wallabies first five has been reported to have inquired about getting a release from his contract with the Reds in order to make the transfer and improve his game in “the world’s toughest domestic competition”.
If those reports from the New Zealand Herald and reproduced elsewhere come to fruition, it would deal a hammer blow to the Reds Super Rugby AU title aspirations for 2021 and severely disappoint a Reds fan-base looking to go one better than runner-up.
One would also imagine that the Reds squad and coach big, bad Brad Thorn would also be a bit, well, thorny on the issue.
On the flip side, James O’Connor would bolster the Chiefs hopes to bounce back from finishing last in Super Rugby Aotearoa this year.
He would presumably slot in at first five ahead of the promising Kaleb Trask and ‘Mr Clutch’, Bryn Gatland.
Chiefs fans are divided on the prospect. Some are welcoming of a player of his calibre, while others wish to develop homegrown talent. Meanwhile, non-Reds fans in Australia will hold opinions ranging from betrayal to intrigue as to how O’Connor would do on the other side of the ditch and, perhaps more pertinently, what his prospects of returning to the Wallabies fold are as the international season rolls around.
One could also be of the view that the blonde wonder is ahead of his time in showing the vision that will help elevate domestic and international rugby in Australasia.
Back in August I wrote about adding some sizzle to Super Rugby, throwing out a number of ideas, from the potential competition make-up to stadiums, playoffs and fan engagement. Included in those ideas was allowing player movement between Super Rugby franchises without it affecting Test eligibility.
Obviously that assumes a combined trans-Tasman and Pacific competition and would be restricted for Pasifika teams in order to increase their eligible talent pool for international rugby, but for Australia and New Zealand there’s plenty of upside to allowing players to chase better money and/or opportunities without losing them altogether to Europe or Japan.
This open border concept also drew a divided view among the passionate readers here on The Roar as national bias, expected resistance of change and concerns around player welfare surfaced.
Certainly the 2021 season is not quite the context I was envisioning, with separate competitions taking place in Australia and New Zealand ahead of the trans-Tasman crossover series.
But the way I see it is that if O’Connor goes to Hamilton and helps the Chiefs win the Super Rugby Aotearoa title, the Chiefs and their fans will be happy. And if he can improve his own game and gain a better understanding the New Zealand players and systems, this is also very helpful stuff to improve the Wallabies cause.
That would of course make Dave Rennie and Wallabies fans happy too.
Yes, it would be a bitter pill to swallow for the Reds, but the bigger picture could net a decent return, say, if O’Connor decided to return to them in 2022 armed with extra knowledge and skills.
For 2022 and beyond such player movement would not be a one-way street either. New Zealand talent like David Havili, Mitch Hunt, Salesi Rayasi and Asafo Aumua would all help any Aussie team’s performance and electrify their fan-base as they too hone their craft. I mean, coaches have been doing it for years.
Of course there are the obvious hurdles to Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby opening their minds to such movement by relaxing their eligibility rules, even though Rugby Australia does have a little bit of wriggle room, which O’Conner can use to his advantage in gaining a transfer for 2021.
So, yes, it will need a big shift in mindset for the fans and administration, but James O’Connor could be the one to push the door ajar for future players to follow.
The game in this part of the world would be all the better for it.