O’Connor’s Reds shift could solve Wallabies problem
JAMES O'Connor's shift to flyhalf for the Queensland Reds has turned him into a surprise candidate to solve the Wallabies' vexing No.10 debate.
O'Connor seems certain to be picked at flyhalf on Saturday night for his third straight outing when the Reds host Japan's Sunwolves at Suncorp Stadium.
The cupboard was bare for experienced options at No.10, beyond Matt Toomua, when new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie signed on.
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Now he has two possibilities, each with 52 Tests and multiple clashes against the All Blacks, behind them.
O'Connor may be best suited to inside centre but he had a strong game at No.10 in the 43-27 loss to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires last Sunday.
"Anyone who plays No.10 gets looked at as a No.10," said Wallabies selector Scott Johnson, Rugby Australia's Director of Rugby.
"James is a very good rugby player first of all and one with more than 50 caps.
"You look at how Matt Toomua managed the Melbourne Rebels in the wet last round (for the win over the NSW Waratahs) and that's a real good thing to see in a No.10.
"We have a good group of young No.10s, all different, coming through as well."
Johnson didn't name-check the youngsters but Noah Lolesio (Brumbies), Will Harrison (Waratahs) and Isaac Lucas (Reds) have earned Super Rugby exposure as well.
The most appealing aspect to O'Connor's play at No.10 against the Jaguares was the smart balance to his game.
He twice found winger Henry Speight with pinpoint long passes and a sidestep in tight created a short-ball chance to put halfback Tate McDermott over for a try.
His distribution was crisp, he picked the right moments to dart himself and he seemed to get the extra distance he needed on his kicks as the game went on.
Coach Brad Thorn's U-turn on his best backline formation has given Rennie this unexpected glimpse of O'Connor as a possible Test No.10.
Since starting Lucas in the chief playmaking role in the opening round against the Brumbies, Thorn has backed O'Connor beside the hard-hitting Hamish Stewart at inside centre.
The weary Reds flew home from Argentina on Monday night but have to shake themselves into a fresh mood quickly to deal with the Sunwolves.
Backrow livewire Fraser McReight is finally fit to be the energetic cavalry now he has beaten a frustrating hand injury.
The 2019 Junior Wallabies skipper had his first full contact session in five weeks at Ballymore on Monday now damaged ligaments in his hand have mended.
He will rejoin the main body of the Reds squad as a bench option against the Sunwolves and the Sharks at the same ground a week later.
"It's the job of the boys who didn't go on tour to keep the guys enthused this week and it's great to be fit to rip in at training," McReight said.