Australian Rugby - Wallabies Comment
Deans hints at game plan with O'Connor
Andy Withers
May 19, 2013

Robbie Deans, in explaining his decision to give James O'Connor first look at the Wallabies No. 10 jumper might have given the outside world a first glimpse of the game plan he is looking to implement against the British & Irish Lions.

O'Connor has enjoyed little game time in the No. 10 jumper, even for Melbourne Rebels at Super Rugby level, and Rugby World Cup-winning Wallabies Stirling Mortlock and Tim Horan said earlier in the year that he lacked the kicking game, ball distribution and game management required as a Test five-eighth, and that he was better suited out wide.

"His calling and game awareness at 10, he still needs to work on that," Mortlock said, "He's getting better but he hasn't played that position consistently from the day dot. I just think his skill set, currently, is more suited to [nside centre] long term." Fellow 80-Test Wallabies centre Horan, meanwhile, said Cooper's return to form beside Will Genia and added maturity showed he should start at five-eighth. "James O'Connor should be on the wing or at inside centre," Horan said. "I just don't think he has the distribution to ignite the backline outside him."

O'Connor rejected the criticism at the time, saying: "I've played 10 in that ball-playing role since I started playing rugby, even back to my rugby league days. It's sort of second nature to where I feel most comfortable."

Deans said at the Wallabies squad announcement on Sunday that O'Connor had "the components we're looking for".

Wallabies squad to face British & Irish Lions

  • Props: Ben Alexander (Brumbies), Sekope Kepu (Waratahs), Benn Robinson (Waratahs), James Slipper (Reds).
  • Hookers: Stephen Moore (Brumbies), Saia Faingaa (Reds).
  • Locks: James Horwill (Reds), Rob Simmons (Reds), Sitaleki Timani (Waratahs).
  • Backrowers: Dave Dennis (Waratahs), Liam Gill (Reds), Scott Higginbotham (Rebels), Michael Hooper (Waratahs), Ben Mowen (Brumbies), Wycliff Palu (Waratahs).
  • Half-backs: Will Genia (Reds).
  • Five-eighths: Christian Lealiifano (Brumbies), James O'Connor (Rebels).
  • Centres: Adam Ashley-Cooper (Waratahs), Rob Horne (Waratahs).
  • Wingers: Nick Cummins (Force), Digby Ioane (Reds), Joe Tomane (Brumbies).
  • Fullbacks: Berrick Barnes (Waratahs), Israel Folau (Waratahs).

"He traumatises defences," Deans said. "He keeps the attack very square, which provides opportunities for the channels around him."

Is James O'Connor the right man to play at No. 10 against the British & Irish Lions? Leave a message at the foot of the story to join the conversation with your fellow rugby fans.

Hence Deans appears set to use O'Connor playing tight to the ruck, involving close runners, quite possibly Christian Lealiifano as a playmaking second five-eighth, to create space early for wider runners to exploit. This would also seem to follow previous stream of thought in which Deans has said: "You've got to attack to win; you've got to find ways to unlock teams. You've also got to deal with what's coming the other way. And it's pretty evident what's coming the other way ... they'll look to squeeze the life out of us, play a territorial game and bring the ref into play. We know what's coming. What we've got to settle on is how we're going to deal with what's coming. Also how we're going to unlock the gate ourselves."

Deans said on Sunday the fact that his chosen core of fly-half candidates had not enjoyed consistent time at international level in the past couple of years had been: "An element of frustration for us. But the great thing is we've got a number who are capable of playing at that level; it's just a matter of identifying the ones we believe will serve the team needs best."

Robbie Deans explains his squad selections

Deans was particularly effusive about Lealiifano when asked to explain the selection of three uncapped players. He said Lealiifano would have played for the Wallabies in 2012 had he remained fit, describing him as a "versatile player, kicks goals, defending well, attacking well, he's got a great skill set".

Deans suggested, too, that Israel Folau could easily be chosen on the wing. Folau has starred for New South Wales Waratahs this season, primarily at fullback, and that is the position in which he has been selected provisionally, but Deans said "we are familiar with the fact he's played international league on the end of the line ... he does have that capability".

"Every player has things to prove," Deans said of the squad selected and of the players left on the outer. "While this is clearly going to be the core of the squad in so far as they've got the first invitation and they'll get together prior to the final six ... but nothing's set in stone and there's still rugby to be played and players can still press their claim - whether they're within or without."

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