Australia v British & Irish Lions, 2nd Test, June 29
Larkham: Deans right to pick O'Connor
Tom Hamilton in Melbourne
June 28, 2013
Stephen Larkham, who won 102 caps for the Wallabies, can now be found coaching the Brumbies © Getty Images
O'Connor endured a torrid time against the British & Irish Lions in the first Test with Australia experiencing huge upheaval in their centre combinations with Christian Leali'ifano forced off the field inside the first minute and his replacement Pat McCabe succumbing to injury in the 46th minute of the game.
Prior to the match, Leali'ifano was the man chosen by Wallabies coach Robbie Deans to kick their shots at the posts but with him knocked out, O'Connor took on the duties but failed to find his range. Kurtley Beale was then handed the tee but he missed two penalties in the final five minutes which ultimately cost Australia a win in the first Test.
But despite the likes of Quade Cooper and Matt Toomua waiting in the wings, Larkham, who was part of the Wallabies side that beat the Lions back in 2001, believes Deans is right to stick to his guns and continue with O'Connor at fly-half for Saturday's second Test in Melbourne.
"It was a difficult decision for the selectors before the series started," Larkham told ESPN. "They had five five-eights to pick from; there was Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper, Matt Toomua, James O'Connor and Berrick Barnes. Toomua's had a consistent good campaign and Cooper has played some good football.
"The other three have been relatively inconsistent but they were named in the squad originally. It was a hard choice to decide who would start the first Test but they went for O'Connor and tried to work the combinations around that. What Robbie's done now is stick with that decision which is the right choice. You should pick someone there and stick with it.
"What hurt us last week was Christian Leali'ifano coming off after 30 seconds, we then had Pat McCabe and Berrick Barnes come off. A number of changes to the combinations would have made it difficult for O'Connor to have a good performance but I'm pleased they have kept those combinations."
The white elephant in the room throughout the Lions series has been Cooper. He skippered the Reds against the Lions back on June 8 but is out of the Wallabies reckoning. Lions assistant coach Andy Farrell said at the time he was pleased with Cooper's omission with the fly-half seemingly still paying the price for his criticism of coach Deans during last season's Rugby Championship.
Larkham, who is currently on the coaching staff at the Brumbies, hopes Cooper will learn from the heartbreak of missing out on a Test sport and admits he was surprised Brumbies No.10 Toomua did not get a call up from Deans.
"Cooper's a quality attacking five-eighth. In attack he's quality and he attacks the line well, gets the ball to where it needs to be and he's the best in Australia at doing that. But his kicking game is inconsistent and defensively he picks and chooses whether he wants to make tackles or not which is disappointing, especially in such a key position.
Larkham believes Toomua had something to offer the Wallabies against the Lions © Getty Images
"The Lions team vigorously attack that channel and you need someone robust. For me, it is surprising Toomua has not been called in to give us some cover there and sure up the defences in that area. For Quade, he can feel a little bit hard done by but I'm sure he will learn a lesson out of his comments from last year. Hopefully he'll come through this as a better player having realised what he missed out on."
Larkham's Brumbies are the only side to have registered a victory against Warren Gatland's Lions and it was Stuart Hogg who started at No.10 for the tourists that day. That experiment backfired with Hogg struggling to assert any dominance over opposite number Toomua but it will be Ireland's Jonathan Sexton who will guide the Lions from fly-half in Saturday's second Test.
And Larkham admits although he knew little of Sexton before he arrived Down Under with the Lions, he has praised the soon-to-be Racing Metro fly-half's game management.
"I've been really impressed with Jonny Sexton," Larkham added. "I didn't know too much about him before he came out here, I watched some highlights packages of him. But he controls the game exceptionally well and is dangerous in attack. He's also stepped up defensively.
"His game last week was key to their victory. Owen Farrell is a very good defensive player but emotionally and mentally he is a bit inconsistent. He needs to work on that but he will gain experience out of this tour which will bode well for England when he gets back into that national side."
Stephen Larkham was speaking on behalf of Land Rover, for more visit www.landrover.com
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.