O'Connor stakes his claim

2011-11-28 08:01
James O'Connor (Gallo)
London - James O'Connor says he is ready, willing and able to play his first Test at No 10, after excelling in the pivotal role for the Wallabies against the Barbarians at Twickenham.

In his first major appearance at No 10, O'Connor had a memorable afternoon on Saturday, guiding the Wallabies to a breezy eight-tries-to-one victory with an assured midfield performance, in which he continually troubled the Barbarians with his front-foot play and willingness to attack the gain line. The extra responsibilities did not affect his kicking either, and he finished with 20 points from seven conversions, a penalty goal and field goal.

Before the match, there had been a strong possibility that Berrick Barnes would take over as No 10 for Saturday's Test against Wales in Cardiff, with O'Connor moving to No. 12. But that may no longer be an option, especially after Barnes was forced off the field before half-time after he was accidentally kneed near his shoulder by Barbarians second-rower Simon Shaw.

Wallabies officials said the Waratahs midfielder was "extremely sore" after the incident, and might be unavailable for the match at Millennium Stadium. That means the Wallabies may have no option but to leave O'Connor at five-eighth, with young Reds centre Ben Tapuai a strong possibility to play his first Test at No 12 after he had an excellent second-half as Barnes's replacement.

O'Connor was one of a number of Wallabies' standouts, with fullback Adam Ashley-Cooper and wings Digby Ioane and Lachie Turner, who shared in four tries, also shining. Several players also used their time off the bench well, particularly James Horwill, another with two tries to his name when he crossed twice in nine minutes after replacing Nathan Sharpe.

The Barbarians lacked structure and the Wallabies took advantage of that, playing with great resolve and making few errors in spite of a five-week break.

Ashley-Cooper won the man-of-the-match award, but O'Connor was the player everyone wanted to talk about. Most importantly, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans was delighted, given that he now knows O'Connor can comfortably cover for Cooper.

"For a first outing at this level, it was an impressive performance," Deans said. "He provided demands on the defence, while his passing game was pretty good. That is going to be the toughest element when it comes to playing Test football, because there is so much less time and space. And by and large he was good in that area tonight."

Ditto Tapuai. "He was great," Deans said. "He straightened the attack, was strong in the contact, and has pretty good ball security as well. It was a good start."

After having a precautionary X-ray on a sore hand that had been stood on, O'Connor said that if he was required to play No 10 against Wales, it would not daunt him.

"I'll be ready. I will approach the match the same as I usually do, but as it will involve a Test team, there will be more structure to the opposition's game," he said.

"If Berrick is out, I will happily take the No 10 reins again. And I'm also sure Ben [Tapuai] will be up for it as well. I was happy with my performance. I had a whole week to work on it, and get used to it. I have played No 10 for the Force, and while No 12 is the position I like, it is still nothing different for me."

O'Connor even knew when to adapt. Just before half-time, he was lining up a conversion attempt, but had the ball plucked off the kicking tee by Barbarians halfback Peter Stringer before he could get his boot to it. Stringer had sprinted 25 metres to charge the kick down after O'Connor had begun his drawn-out goalkicking process with a slight movement of his right foot.

Stringer grabbed the ball and ran off the field with it, with referee Romain Poite telling O'Connor Stringer was well within his rights because the goalkicker had moved. In the second half, O'Connor refined his kicking action. The little twitch was gone.

"Apparently my foot came off the ground, and that is considered as when I have started my kick. If that's the case, it's a fair call. I fixed it up in the second half," O'Connor said.

He had plenty of opportunities to work on his action after the break, as the Wallabies went on a try-scoring spree, finishing with 42 points in the second half.

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