Tri-Nations

O'Connor commands wing

2010-09-02 07:47
James O'Connor (AFP)
Johannesburg - Amid all the gloom from the Pretoria implosion, at least the Wallabies' coaching staff achieved the positive of working out exactly where James O'Connor fits into the Test mix.

Like Adam Ashley-Cooper, O'Connor is a victim of being capable in too many positions, causing the 20-year-old to be shuffled between spots. But in recent weeks, coach Robbie Deans has been saying that O'Connor, despite his eagerness to play at flyhalf, inside-centre or fullback, is best equipped at Test level on the wing.

That assessment may surprise the Force utility, who believed he had a Test future at fullback. But that went a bit awry in Wellington last year when the All Blacks successfully bombarded him with high balls, and he struggled under the pressure.

Then it was a case of O'Connor being the next best in numerous spots, turning him into a bench candidate, rather than a certain starting XV option. That was until midway through this year's Test season when, against the Springboks in Brisbane, Deans moved him from fullback to wing - where he has remained for the past four internationals. By far O'Connor's best performance on the wing was in Pretoria, where he showed that he is starting to adjust to the demands of being a prime finisher.

He did that by being involved in two rousing tries. The first was in the fifth minute when fullback Kurtley Beale made the break and O'Connor was in the right spot for the final pass. Then five minutes later, O'Connor succeeded in hassling his opposite, Bryan Habana, and regathering the ball to score after the celebrated Springboks winger fumbled it from a restart.

As far as Deans is concerned, that confirmed O'Connor will hold on to the No. 14 jersey for some time. And O'Connor is happy to accept that this relatively new position for him will be where he will appear in the Wallabies colours for some time.

''Playing on the wing is a bit different, but I have settled in there now,'' he said on Wednesday. ''I did really enjoy that Test, even though we lost.

''There was a lot of open space, and having guys inside you who can create something definitely makes it a good experience.

''I've got guys near me like Adam Ashley-Cooper, who has played a lot on the wing, and he is giving me good advice. I've played a fair bit at fullback, and when you're there, you know what you want from your wingers. Probably the biggest difference is the work rate, because you sometimes have to work inside and outside the No.10, and then have to bust your gut to get back to the wing.''

However, at provincial level with the Force, he will continue to appear elsewhere. Where exactly will be determined by the Wallabies assistant coach Richard Graham, who takes over as Force head coach when John Mitchell's contract expires at the end of next year. Graham could easily be in charge next year if Mitchell heads to the Lions in Johannesburg before the season.

''I think he has adapted very well to wing,'' Graham said. ''His ability to run on the inside channel off the likes of Quade Cooper or Matt Giteau is obvious. At the same time he has that instinctiveness to be in the right position to score the try off Kurtley after we broke the line.''

However, Graham would not be drawn into where O'Connor would appear in the Force jersey.

''At this stage, I'm not really going to predict where he will end up, because he has proven himself to be very good in the back three the last few seasons,'' he said.

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