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The Wrap: Cool as you like, James O’Connor provides a masterclass in brand management

6th March, 2022
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6th March, 2022
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Australian rugby’s three amigos might be dead and buried, but the brand James O’Connor not only lives on, but is hotter than ever.

Now 31, but blessed with genes that still see him pass for a schoolboy, O’Connor almost singlehandedly spoilt the Western Force’s homecoming in Perth on Friday night.

With much of south-east Queensland under water and the Reds already experiencing the week from hell, they then lost stand-in skipper Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in the fourth minute.

Never fear, up stepped O’Connor, and working off not much more than crumbs, he twice put runners through holes for a 15-13 half-time lead.

Not done, O’Connor laid on a third for Josh Flook in the 66th minute to wrest back the lead, then for good measure, drilled the conversion from the sideline.

Think that might be the end of the story? Think again.

By now enjoying front-foot ball courtesy of his industrious pack, a fourth try assist by O’Connor, this time for Fraser McReight, sealed the match 29-16, and capped off an extraordinary individual performance.

James O'Connor

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

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Irrespective of their win in Super Rugby AU last year, this was close to the Reds’ best win in the Brad Thorn era. The Force are a decent side and they served up plenty in the first 40 minutes, if lacking a little clinical finesse in the red zone.

But even without a top-notch set piece, this Reds side simply knows how to win. And when it mattered, their key experienced Wallaby stood up and stamped his brand all over HBF Park.

Perhaps the Force’s expectations had drifted a little ahead of reality, but they are by no means damaged by this result.

The more the match went on, the loss of Kane Koteka impacted upon their ability to win quick ball, and even if the home crowd fell unusually quiet, they will be back for more and will be rewarded for it.

Let’s hope by then commentators Drew Mitchell and Justin Harrison have got a better handle on what horizontal and vertical actually mean.

Join experts Brett McKay and Harry Jones and special guest Jamie Wall as they look at Super Rugby week 2, that debut by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and tip what four teams will miss the finals this year.

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Not only did the Reds suffer an interrupted build-up, so did the Force, courtesy of three players who took it upon themselves to indulge in a glass of wine with their meal on their trip west.

That’s not exactly a David Boon 52-can plane trip, yet Andrew Ready and Byron Ralston, all for the love of the grape, were stood down from the weekend’s action.

One would have thought that the Force would be more interested in keeping Ready off the cream buns, but so be it.

There’s nothing wrong with a leadership group setting standards and imposing sanctions when they’re broken, however the fact that prop Greg Holmes also indulged but wasn’t stood down from the match because he was deemed an essential player only invites ridicule.

Moana Pasifika defied all expectations – well, mine at least – by providing stout opposition for the Crusaders in their debut Super Rugby match, eventually won 33-12 by the Crusaders.

Lotu Inisi of Moana Pasifika celebrates after scoring a try during the Super Rugby pre season trial match between Moana Pasifika and the Chiefs at Mt Smart Stadium on February 04, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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No.8 Henry Time-Stowers and ex-Crusader Ereatara Enari at halfback were standouts in what was an impressive display of bruising defence, commitment to contesting the breakdown, and inventive attack.

An important cog in Hawkes Bay’s recent Ranfurly Shield success, impressive flyhalf Lincoln McClutchie, added more to the mystery of why he wasn’t deemed worthy of a Super Rugby contract prior to this season.

There will still be some tough nights ahead when their depth gets tested. But far better organised and conditioned than they had a right to be given their interrupted preparation, Moana Pasifika now have the rest of the competition sitting up, taking notice.

The Crusaders had a squad feel about them, but that’s not offered as an excuse. Poor option taking and being second to the ball are inhibitors for any side, no matter what names are on the team sheet.

In the end, they may have lost a bit of skin, but a bonus-point win is a bonus-point win, and they move on to bigger battles.

A word too for the post-match, where viewers who didn’t switch off early were rewarded with the sight and sound of the two sides coming together in the middle of the stadium in song; a superb coda.

More history was made on the Sunshine Coast with the Fijian Drua notching their first Super Rugby win, 31-26 against the Rebels.

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Down 14-0 just before half-time, the Drua found a way to break the structure of the game, and with it, wrested control of the match from the Rebels.

The Drua even had the luxury of putting the cue in the rack early, kicking their goals and punting out of their own half, albeit helped by the Rebels set piece imploding in the second stanza.

There’s nothing like a big winger doing the business, combining pace and power, and the Drua are blessed with two of them, Onisi Ratave and Vinaya Habosi. They will surely light up this competition further.

Fijian Drua

(Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Although outscoring the Drua four tries to three, the Rebels never convinced watchers – or themselves – that they had the stability to see out their game plan for all 80 minutes.

The injury list is one thing, but a closer look at their personnel is telling. Three players – Josh Canham, Lukas Ripley and Josh Hill – were on debut, with a fourth – Nic Jooste – on debut for the Rebels.

Four players were aged 19 or 20, with Carter Gordon – forced to play out of position – only just turned 21. Thirteen of the match-day 23 had fewer than ten Super Rugby caps; many of those just brief cameos from the bench.

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The issue isn’t just one of youth and inexperience; these players have never played rugby together before. They will need to learn and gel quickly. And they will need to scrum a lot more convincingly, and nail a lot more first-time tackles.

What is evident is that while player depth in Australia is improving, there is still some way to go to fill five sides.

Some of this Rebels side will eventually become well-performed professionals, as will some of the next wave of local players behind them.

But for now, losing experienced players in clumps at the end of each season, without sufficient continuity from year to year to provide a stable base, the Rebels look likely to continue to struggle.

As evidenced by James O’Connor’s stellar performance, and Rob Valetini on Saturday night, for Australian franchises to perform well, they need their Wallabies players to be performing at the top of their game.

That’s no slight on Matt Philip or Matt Toomua; they just need more of their ilk on the field, doing the business.

Matt Toomua reacts after a loss

(William West/AFP via Getty Images)

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After burning a winnable match at the death last week, the Blues almost repeated the dose, falling into one of the oldest traps in rugby: trying to run the clock out through passive recycling.

But referee Ben O’Keeffe was all over their limp execution, which followed by a second penalty against skipper Tom Robinson, set up Bryn Gatland to win the match with the final kick.

The kick drifted wide, and the Blues got up 24-22, which was everything that fullback Stephen Perofeta deserved for his contribution. He capped an excellent match with a try assist and go-ahead sideline conversion with just three minutes to play.

For the Chiefs, Pita Gus Sowakula was a handful, after being forced last week by World Rugby to adjust his running style to stay lower to the ground.

Complemented by strong matches by two of King Country’s finest, Josh Lord and Sam Cane, if the Chiefs can smooth out a couple of rough edges further out, their pack looks formidable.

After their stunning win last week, the Hurricanes only stuttered this time around, but it was still enough to keep the Highlanders at bay 21-14.

It was not pretty, but this was just the sort of match inconsistent Hurricanes teams of old would have dropped.

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There isn’t a lot wrong with the Highlanders that a couple of higher-class back-line players couldn’t fix.

But as for the Rebels, it’s one thing to identify where the class deficiencies are; it’s another thing altogether to produce players to fill them.

It was a fine sight to see Rob Valetini let off the leash in the Canberra rain, tormenting the Waratahs on the way to what looked like being a straightforward win.

Rob Valetini runs the ball.

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

But gradually, as the Waratahs began to hold on to the ball and grew in confidence, their pace and intensity lifted, and the final 27-20 result was probably a little more uncomfortable that what Dan McKellar had anticipated.

Continuing his impressive start to the season, Waratahs No.8 Will Harris is reminiscent of South African great Morne Du Plessis, with a dash of Tim Gavin, in the way he runs the ball.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Harris even had the presence of mind to transfer the ball to the correct hand en route to his storming second-half try.

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And who doesn’t admire a player who in the heat of battle gives his guts for the team?

It wouldn’t be a proper weekend without The Australian – whose coverage of actual rugby is now irregular and intermittent – raining down a few grenades on Rugby Australia, the organisation that had the temerity to wait out a concerted cross-media attack in 2020 before handing over broadcasting rights to a new, less abusive partner.

“Failed bid would put rugby in peril” shouted the lead sports headline in this weekend’s edition, under the by-line of Jessica Halloran and John Stensholt.

Is it possible that the Australian government might not sufficiently underwrite Australia’s bid to secure it the 2027 World Cup? The same World Cup that World Rugby has basically already rubber-stamped for Australia?

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

Well yes, anything is possible when politics is involved. But is it likely? Aside from rehashing a quote from bid director Phil Kearns, itself aimed at placing public pressure on the government to follow through and do the right thing, O’Halloran and Stensholt offered no actual evidence that the World Cup is about to be sent elsewhere.

What was offered instead were the same, tired old lines about Australia’s “ailing code”, and Rugby Australia’s “financial hole” and “financial quagmire”.

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There’s an old saying that misery loves company. When the 2027 World Cup kicks off in Australia, I’ll be happy to chip in for a nice bottle of wine for O’Halloran and Stensholt to share to help them drown their sorrows.

While this is a regular rugby wrap, I’m betting that almost every reader of this column has at one time been exhilarated, exasperated, or both by SK Warne.

I met him a few times; once when he rocked up in a Porsche outside our Fitzroy workplace, double parked, and asked one of our warehouse staff to keep an eye on the car while he went upstairs to pick up a computer.

Unwittingly, he had stumbled into our regular lunch-time cricket match and as quick as a flash it was determined that his car would be minded, but only if he agreed to send a couple of balls down the internal concrete driveway, which served as our pitch.

It’s fair to say that despite being dressed in a sharp, expensive suit, Warnie didn’t need much encouragement, and the time-honoured tennis ball wrapped in gaffer tape quickly found its way into the maestro’s hands.

The lad batting would have given New Zealand’s Chris Martin a run for his money at 11 and, predictably, he got nowhere near the first couple.

But the roar that went up when he actually laid bat on the third, and swung it past the pallets at midwicket, could have been heard from the MCG!

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RIP Warnie, and for that matter, Rodney Marsh; two dead-set legends of Australian sport, gone too soon.

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