Wallabies coach considers positional switch for O'Connor
SPOTLIGHT: It won’t happen this week but the door is open for James O’Connor to rejoin Australian rugby’s fellow prodigal son Quade Cooper back in the Wallabies’ starting XV.
In a scenario unimaginable just a few weeks ago, and certainly in the preceding years before that when Cooper and O’Connor couldn’t even find a Super Rugby franchise, the two exciting former prodigies may be reunited for the Wallabies as soon as this month.
Dave Rennie on Thursday resisted calls from Test great Chris Latham to pair Cooper and O’Connor in Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash with South Africa in Brisbane.
But the Wallabies coach isn’t ruling out the prospect of a fit-again O’Connor returning to the fold at fullback against Argentina on Saturday week following Cooper’s stirring and match-winning comeback against the Springboks last weekend.
Rennie said O’Connor had even been in contention to start at flyhalf this week after overcoming a groin injury before selectors opted to reward the heroes of Sunday’s 28-26 win over the world champion Springboks on the Gold Coast.
There was no bigger hero than Cooper, who slotted eight from eight with the boot, including the clutch long-range winner after the siren at Cbus Super Stadium.
But Rennie is making no secret of his desire to squeeze both ex-outcasts into Australia’s 23-man squad, if not the run-on side.
“This is the best I’ve seen James,” said Rennie, admitting the Queensland Red was now being considered as a fullback and not just a playmaker.
“Even through Super Rugby, he never did a lot of high-speed metres. We want him to be a genuine threat at 10 if space opens up that he can attack.
“He ended up injuring a groin in preparation for the French Tests [but] he’s worked extremely hard. He looks really sharp. We’re keen to get some footy into him.
“He’d be a strong contender for next week. We feel we could definitely play both those guys in the same 23. It certainly brings a lot of experience.
“James, like Quade, has a lot of Test footy under his belt. He was really impressive in our environment. He’s a cool head and you see the influence he has on the Reds.
“To have someone like James come back in the fold for us would be gold.”
Rennie was asked specifically if that meant fullback Tom Banks, who has endured an indifferent season starting in the No.15 jumper in all seven Tests so far in 2021, was under pressure.
“Look, James has got himself into really good nick,” Rennie said.
“We would definitely not have played him at fullback a couple of months ago and prior to that because, from a high-speed running perspective, he just hasn’t had any decent numbers for the last couple of years.
“But he’s worked really hard over that last period and it’s the sharpest I’ve seen him.
“So he’s definitely back into a physical shape where we think we could use him as utility as opposed as just a 10.”
Banks knows he needs to deliver to retain his spot.
“It’s always going to happen. You’re in a Wallabies environment, everyone is competing for positions,” he said on Thursday.
“It is what it is but James is a fantastic player. He’s shown what he can do in Super Rugby so, as always, it’s going to be a competition for spots.
“You’ve just got to keep performing.”