Down Under: Time for Wallabies to give O'Connor a chance

Alex Broun 17/04/2017
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The once Wallaby wonderkid O’Connor, last time he wore the green and gold back in 2013.

You are going to think I’m crazy, but Wallabies coach Michael Cheika should bite the bullet and recall wild-child James O’Connor.

You may dismiss this as a lame attempt to deflect attention from the ongoing soapie, “Which Australian Super Rugby team gets the chop this week?” but hear me out.

It’s dark times for Australian rugby. The five, soon to be four, Australian teams in not-so-Super Rugby have hit a new low. Out of 34 matches played so far by the five flunkees, they have won a grand total of 10 and lost 24.

Even more alarming is that only three of those ten wins have come against teams from South Africa or New Zealand. To be precise all three have been against South African teams.

The record against New Zealand teams this year stands at Played 12, Won 0, Lost 12. The national record is only slightly better.

Since their surprise run to the 2015 Rugby World Cup final the Wallabies have won just six out of 15 tests, including four losses on the bounce to England.

The reason to put it bluntly is cattle, or rather the lack of. Australia simply does not have the players to compete against the big boys of the international game – namely England and New Zealand.

And one thing that is not happening in Super Rugby this year, is the uncovering of future Wallabies. Indeed the brightest possibility that has emerged is 30-year-old exleaguie, Karmichael Hunt.

The best thing to happen over the last six months has been the news that Waratahs playmaker Kurtley Beale has been lured back from an impressive stint with English Premiership leaders Wasps.

No doubt Cheika, who nurtured Beale during his stint coaching the NSW Waratahs, had a big part to play in re-signing ‘KB’ through until World Cup 2019 in Japan.

So while he’s tempting big guns to return Cheika could do worse than navigating a path for Beale’s one time partner in crime, O’Connor back to Wallaby gold.

O’Connor’s last disastrous spell in Australian rugby was in 2015 when the Reds cut him at the end of one poor season. You know the Reds. They are the team that have finished 13th, 13th and 15th in the last three years of Super Rugby.

There is another famous name also cut from the Reds after one season – a certain Eddie Jones. He isn’t doing too badly these days.

Yes, O’Connor has had his share of off field controversies, his latest being a dalliance with an All Black and a white powder in Paris, but the kid can play.

In his test career to date he has played 44 matches for 22 wins and 223 points, including 14 tries. Compare that with Beale who has scored 12 tries in 60 tests or Quade Cooper, eight tries in 67. Cooper is a good yardstick here.

As a Wallaby fan, who would you rather have on your team sheet – O’Connor or Cooper? And as a non Wallaby fan who would you rather not come on to the field with 10 minutes to play in a tight Bledisloe Cup match – O’Connor or Cooper?

The answer to both those questions is O’Connor. I’m not saying that it won’t take considerable management both to get him back in the Wallaby environment and re-signed to whoever remains out of the Tahs, Reds, Brumbies, Rebels and Force – but what are the Wallabies options?

James O'Connor.

James O’Connor.

The bottom of the barrel was scraped some time ago. If you say that it’s beyond Cheika’s ablities to manage O’Connor – you’re wrong.

It would be a good challenge for Cheika and immensely better for O’Connor as a man and a player to have a strong male role model like Cheika, who – don’t forget – also had his troubles off the field as a youngster.

Remember Todd Carney, Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson – even Kurtley Beale? All famous bad boys who did things you thought at the time were unforgiveable and have gone on to again hit the heights.

Why shouldn’t O’Connor, who is still only 26, be given the same chance? But the best example of bad boy come good is Sonny Bill Williams. Remember the uproar in 2008 when he slipped out the back door to play French rugby?

Nine out of 10 people in Australia were looking for the tar and feathers. Ever since there have been regular dramas and quirks – some good, some bad.

The latest regarding certain logos on jerseys. But thanks to superb management from the NZRU and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, SBW is one of the best and most popular players in the world. Could a similar miracle be worked with JO’C?

AFL

You know times are tough when coaches start quoting The Boss – and that is exactly what beseiged Hawthorn Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson resorted to.

The Hawks face Geelong Monday in a huge clash at “The G”, desperate to find their first win of the season.

They are 0-3 and sit stone motherless last on the table. “Bruce Springsteen has got a great song” said Clarkson, “Hard times come, hard times go. We’re going through a hard time at the minute but we’re really, really strong in our resolve to pull ourselves out of this pickle.”

Clarkson couldn’t get the song title right, it’s actually ‘Wrecking Ball’, but hopefully his team can get the win.

Alastair Clarkson.

Alastair Clarkson.

NRL

It’s every blue-blooded New South Welshman’s greatest nightmare but Melbourne Storm and Queensland fullback Billy Slater is getting back to his best. Slater had a superb game for Melbourne in their topsy-turvy 30-26 win over the Sea Eagles, his fifth match since returning from a shoulder injury, and the 33-year-old is threatening to recapture top form just in time for State of Origin game one in Brisbane on May 31.

A-League

Sydney FC have eclipsed the Brisbane Roar team of 2010-11 to become (arguably) the greatest A-League team of all time.

With the 2-0 win over Newcastle Jets, the Sky Blues bettered the 65 points that Roar secured, where they played 30 games instead of the current 27.

But that’s just one of the many records the Premiers broke during one of the greatest A-League seasons ever.

Now they just have to make their way through the play offs to actually be crowned champions.

It will all mean nought if they lose the Grand Final on May 7.

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INTERVIEW: Courtney Lawes on England revolution & Lions ambition

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Wuthering Heights: England lock Courtney Lawes passes on his knowledge.

For someone with the nickname ‘Big C’, a suitably huge summer awaits down south.

Colossal England lock Courtney Lawes – all 6ft 7in (2.01m) and 18st 8lb (118kg) of him – is widely expected to feature for the first time next Wednesday when head coach Warren Gatland names the British & Irish Lions squad for New Zealand.

A prominent role in rugby’s sternest challenge should beckon as reward for a dynamic Six Nations defence, in which he registered 70 tackles and 48 carries – significant improvements on previous bests of 38 and 32.

Not even the disappointment of seeing a record-equalling run of 18 Test wins end in defeat to Ireland on the final day could take the sheen off Lawes and his team-mates’ achievements.

Speaking at Lapita Hotel in Dubai as he joined compatriots Tom Wood – who he also plays with at Northampton Saints – and Kyle Sinckler in overseeing a training session for more than 50 Dubai Hurricanes youngsters, the 28-year-old reveals a phlegmatic attitude about the selection process.

“It would be amazing,” Lawes replies to Sport360° when quizzed about making the storied 10-match, three-Test series from June 3-July 8. “I’ve got no say in it anymore, all I can do is play for my club and hope for the best.

“I can’t get my hopes up. I just need to focus on doing my best for my team. “The fact of the matter is that it all hangs on one man’s opinion. We are all good players and all deserve to go on the Lions tour. “He [Gatland] is going to have his preferences and that’s the main thing. “You have just got to hope he favours you.”

A call-up to the Lions is one of the greatest honours which can be earned in sport. The genesis of the clash between the northern and southern hemisphere’s finest can be traced back to 1888, with four-year gaps between each contest adding to the prestige.

In Australia during 2013, the tourists snapped a three-series losing streak. One player absent was England firebrand and skipper Dylan Hartley (below), who was initially selected but then removed once an 11- week ban was incurred for abusing a referee in the Premiership finale.

Dylan Hartley

Dylan Hartley

This obnoxious incident was just one in a long line of indiscretions for a hooker who has been suspended for 60 weeks since 2011. Yet new England boss Eddie Jones named him skipper last year, citing his passion and aggressive approach.

With the pair leading the nation to the verge of history, his role against the All Blacks is being hotly debated. For club and international colleague Lawes, there is no question the 31-year-old merits the armband.

He says: “I think he [Hartley] would add something to any team. I think he does deserve to go, but that is not my decision. “He is a fantastic captain for England and he was for Saints. I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be a great captain for the Lions.”

Lawes appears to be in a battle against England’s Joe Launchbury, Scotland’s Richie Gray, Ireland’s Devin Toner and Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones for the hotly-contested starting spots in the second row.

Whomever gains the nod will come up against world-class New Zealand counterparts Brodie Retallick – 2014 World Rugby Player of the Year – and Sam Whitelock.

“Absolutely fine, no worries,” Lawes says when asked about potentially facing the pair. “But you know, I am very confident in my ability and if I was to go, the others around me – that is all there is to it.”

A tally of 58 England caps since making his debut as a 20-year-old is impressive, but a lengthy list of injuries has curbed this number.

From stress fractures to his shin, concussions, shoulder knocks, groin problems and torn medial ligaments, Lawes has damaged it all it in a physical sport played at an increasingly higher speed and by athletes of ever-greater size.

This made his zestful impact at the recent Six Nations all the more remarkable. Lawes reveals a combination of hard work on the training pitch, focusing on ball carrying and running lines, plus time spent away from the treatment table got him into prime condition.

He says: “I have not been fit for this long in a very long while. “I have always been a good, mobile forward. I have good footwork and things like that.”

Lawes was previously renowned for making monstrous hits, rather than causing chaos with ball in hand. The arrival of Jones as England coach in the aftermath of a disastrous 2015 Rugby World Cup has helped take his performances to new heights.

The Australian’s success on the pitch, single-minded focus and charismatic antics – such as bringing his dog, Annie, to training – have also gripped English rugby.

“I’m ‘Big C’, that’s all there is to it,” says Lawes of his relationship with the national supremo. “I think it is pretty self-explanatory. “Every so often, you get a kick up the ass. But he also wants to be your friend and be around the team, being among the banter and everything like that – he loves it.

“I have never seen his dog involved in any of the training, I think that was Eddie messing around with the media more than anything. “He is always hands on, always in the middle of the pitch, in danger of being run over. “I think he’s been knocked over a few times, but he loves it and just gets back up.”

Talk of the Lions tour is both hard to dodge and a fitting end point to an interview. Lawes is unequivocal when asked about it.

He says: “It is probably the pinnacle of northern hemisphere rugby, but I can’t think about that. I’ve got to get on with it for the rest of the season and hope I’m given a shot.”

HOW THE ‘BIG C’ SEES IT

England Rugby Team players celebrate with the Six Nations trophy.

England Rugby Team players celebrate with the Six Nations trophy.

Six Nations highs and lows

“I know we lost at the end, but we still beat more teams than any others. Ireland are a good team, who were at home and a lot of decisions went their way.”

Partnership with Launchbury

“Our relationship is really good. My Mrs and his wife-to-be are very close, our kids are very close. They are always meeting up and doing whatever they do while we are at training.”

Earliest rugby memories

“I always loved playing rugby. I only started late, when I was 13, but I just enjoyed playing it and didn’t think much of it in terms of a career.”

The ‘Daycation Brunch’ at Lapita Hotel provides the ultimate day out for the family. Prices start from Dh195 with soft beverages, Dh295 for house beverages and Dh95 for children under 12. Contact 04 810 9999.

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England stars reveal softer side to Eddie Jones

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Courtney Lawes was one of three England players in Dubai.

Coach Eddie Jones’ trademark Australian banter and penchant for nicknames has been a key catalyst behind England’s incredible renaissance experienced under him, according to flanker Tom Wood.

All but one of the Red Rose’s record-equalling run of 18 consecutive Test victories was notched up since the 57-year-old took charge in November 2015 of a nation shattered by their awful Rugby World Cup on home soil.

The ex-Japan and Australia supremo has been hailed for his unique approach to the role, allying supreme attention to detail with extrovert moments such as bringing his dog, Annie, go to training and playing an active role in last-minute contact drills on the pitch during last June’s series whitewash of his native country.

Speaking at Lapita Hotel in Dubai as he joined international colleagues Courtney Lawes – who he also plays with at Northampton Saints – and Kyle Sinckler in overseeing a training session for gleeful Dubai Hurricanes youngsters, 50-cap forward Woods – or ‘Rambo’ as he’s known by his current boss – praised the winning atmosphere fostered within the camp.

“Eddie is one of the boys around the team,” said the 30-year-old. “He is always laughing and joking. He has got banter, he’s got nicknames for everybody.

“He has an arm around the lads and out there on the pitch, he is a pretty good taskmaster then. He picks up on errors straight away. He looks at the very basic fundamentals, and polices them really hard.

“I’ve had a few nicknames. The main one I’ve had is ‘Rambo’. He calls us Saints lads, ‘The Factory’. He thinks there is nothing in Northampton other than a shoe factory.”

More than 50 Canes’ kids were put through their paces by the trio, who were in Dubai following the 13-9 loss to Ireland on March 18 which denied them a second-successive Grand Slam in the Six Nations and history. Expected British & Irish Lion Lawes was happy to help.

“Development of rugby in countries like this is very important, and also in England,” the 28-year-old lock said. “It is really good to train with the kids and I like to get more involved.”

When Lawes is away this summer – if selected – with the Lions, Jones will take his available squad to Argentina. This is an opportunity Harlequins’ tighthead Sinckler, 24, does not want to miss out on through complacency, after just breaking in.

He said: “What I’ve learned as I’ve got older is not to look too far ahead. I’m not guaranteed a place on the Argentina tour and the moment you think that, you start losing focus on your game.”

The ‘Daycation Brunch’ at Lapita Hotel provides the ultimate day out for the family. Prices start from Dh195 with soft beverages. Dh295 for house beverages and Dh95 for children under 12. Contact 04 810 9999 for more information.

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