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ANALYSIS: ‘Asking too much’ – brutal truth behind James O’Connor’s axing, and why Wallabies defence coach had to go too

Since the beginning of the international season in early July, Wallabies have been dropping like flies. The highest-profile casualty on the mini-tour of Argentina has been Quade Cooper, who is probably out until the eve of the World Cup with his ruptured Achilles tendon.

But the two latest losses were self-inflicted. James O’Connor was unceremoniously axed from the squad after his performance in San Juan, and assistant coach Matt Taylor left Dave Rennie’s backroom staff voluntarily at the same time. After the latest showing of the Wallaby defence, it is probably fair to say that he jumped before he was pushed.

It is an accurate reflection of the main repair jobs awaiting the Wallabies’ head honcho ahead of the arrival of the world champion Springboks. As we saw in last week’s article, the backfield defence was a mess. Australia also lacked an assured hand of the rudder of their attacking play in Quade’s absence.

The lineout should be an easy fix – just re-select Matt Philip and throw the ball to Rory Arnold. Rebuilding the defensive structure and cohesion, and finding a convincing replacement for Cooper, are both problems which will take much more time to resolve.

Dave Rennie explained the thinking behind O’Connor’s exile as follows:

“James got a crack in the last Test, we thought his experience would be very important, and we wanted him to drive the ship, allow us to implement our plan, and we were pretty clunky. We lacked cohesion, and so he’s missed out on selection.

“He’s worked to get himself in really good shape. The issue from the weekend wasn’t physical. He needs to convince us that he can implement the plan that we want, and it’s difficult to do when you’re not in the squad.

“He’s pretty devastated. He’s desperate to be a Wallaby. He’s going to ensure that he keeps himself in good nick – as we know, based on injuries this year, opportunity could be around the corner.

“We’ll get together with him prior to the squad assembling just to sit down and go through his game, give him clarity around the shifts we need to see if he gets an opportunity with us.”

Instead of Cooper, another thirty-something, former Waratah Bernard Foley, was recalled to his first Wallaby squad since the 2019 World Cup. He has been training in Sydney since talking with Rennie and has received updates on the gameplan and tactical options.

The other choice would be Noah Lolesio, who started all three Tests against England in July after Quade went lame during the warm-up in Perth. Rennie again:

“It’s such a massive position for us, isn’t it? There’s certainly got to be opportunities over the next few weeks for someone to grab that position.

“We were very tempted to start Noah in the second Test [in Argentina], but we thought we needed to find out where James was at and give him an opportunity to play at 10. You can see I guess, based on selection where we see Noah [in the pecking order], so he’s a strong chance to be involved next week.

“He’s a good kid, he’s played a lot of big rugby for young man. We definitely feel he’s going to be an excellent international 10.”

There was a sizeable overlap between O’Connor’s omission and Matt Taylor’s sudden departure from the coaching group. JOC was part of the missed tackle on Thomas Gallo for the Pumas’ second try of the game.

He also made the backfield fumble which led directly to Argentina’s fourth score after only half an hour:

But the most striking overlap between Taylor’s defence and O’Connor’s performance occurred from an Argentine lineout:

The single most important requirement of good defence is to maintain an unbroken line across the width of the pitch, but the Wallabies twice get caught with defenders playing directly behind one another:

Pumas number 12 Jerónimo de la Fuente should be James O’Connor’s man by rights, but he has time run through a yawning gap, pull up lame and go again before any Australian hand is laid on him. JOC had to make that stop.

Dave Rennie comments repeatedly come back to the need for his number 10 to ‘implement the plan’ and that is probably what did for ‘Rabs’, even allowing for the sketchy D.

Take a look at these stats:

PlayerKicks per gamePasses per gameJames O’Connor (San Juan)215Richie Mo’unga (Ellis Park)1021Johnny Sexton (July average)724

It’s only a snapshot in time, but compared to a really good navigator like Ireland’s Johnny Sexton in the July series against the All Blacks, or Richie Mo’unga during New Zealand’s comeback win at Ellis Park, JOC had far fewer involvements in the running of the game.

All this, despite some dominant carrying displays by the Wallaby forwards and plenty of front-foot ball: Bobby Valetini and Jed Holloway had 22 carries for 90 metres and eight decisive outcomes between them in the back row in San Juan.

The main issue was O’Connor’s apparent reluctance to step in at first receiver, which is a number 10’s bread-and-butter with ball in hand. Take a look at the following sequence at the end of the first quarter, which started from a lineout and a pass between Valetini and Fraser McReight on first phase:

Remember this picture. McReight has made the initial carry, and he already has Valetini and hooker Lachlan Lonergan standing above him, so there is no real need for O’Connor to add himself to what is already a winning ruck. It leaves Lalakai Foketi to play first receiver on the following phase:

Foketi slips a neat offload for his centre partner Len Ikitau to make further progress, and then it is Tom Wright showing more animation than Rabs at first receiver on the next play, with the nominal number 10 again committing to the ruck instead of play-making:

After a couple more pounding forward carrying phases from Taniela Tupou and Bobby Valetini, James O’Connor made his only contribution of the entire sequence at first receiver, via a nice in-pass and return ball from Jordie Petaia:

The try was disallowed on review for a ‘tip cleanout’ by James Slipper, but it represented the outside-half’s only significant contribution from first receiver over the course of the match. The passage as whole featured three forward receipts at first receiver, two by backs other than O’Connor, and one by the man himself.

It was not the only time when the likes of Wright, Foketi and Ikitau appeared to be doing more organising on attack than James O’Connor:

Tom Wright is doing the finger-pointing at the forward pod in front of him, and unsurprisingly the Wallabies turned the ball over via an interception on the next play.

The more the game advanced, the more peripheral a figure James O’Connor became:

Valetini carries, and O’Connor happily adds himself to the first ruck. On the final phase of the sequence (just before referee Karl Dickson awarded Australia a penalty), he is again at the base of the ruck, on this occasion playing scrum-half. A play-making pivot? No, anything but.

Unfortunately, subsequent events unfolded within the same pattern:

This is a constructive attacking sequence for the Wallabies, but none of the warm feeling extends through to the Australian number 10. James O’Connor runs diagonally, all the way from the back of the first ruck to attend the second breakdown, when the ball has already been won at the collision stage. That leaves Lalakai Foketi organising the men outside him when the ball comes back from touch via a run by Holloway.

The second part of the sequence features three successive charges up the middle by first McReight, then Valetini and finally Tupou. The progress of play is screaming for a first receiver to come on at speed, short and flat to the ad-line, but the Wallaby outside-half is nowhere in shot. That is surely the route that Cooper would have taken on the back of such a thunderous, rolling wave of forward momentum. The final sets of clips reinforce O’Connor’s tendency to tie himself into rucks and go missing from his primary playmaking role on the following phase:

The ball is shipped wide through Tom Wright to Marika Koroibete, who is eventually held up and turned over at the maul, with the Queensland pivot only drifting back into view at the edge of shot in the final frame.

The four sequences reviewed in this article suggest a very peculiar set of play-making tendencies. In total, 14 phases started with a Wallaby forward at first receiver, six with one of the backs outside 10, and only one with the nominal Australian fly-half. James O’Connor made the play once (albeit to telling effect) while contriving to involve himself in no less than six rucks.

It is a strange distribution of tasks indeed, at a time when the recent performances of Johnny Sexton for Ireland and Richie Mo’unga for New Zealand have fore-fronted the need for a strong game-manager at number 10 in no uncertain terms.

Summary

James O’Connor’s Wallaby redemption occurred on the back of a couple of seasons he spent with the Sale club in the north of England. His return to Australian rugby has been an unqualified bonus, as he came back with genuine humility and an understanding of what he had to offer, as a proper team player.

But he also came back as a centre rather than as a number 10, having built up his body to withstand the rigours of play at 12 or 13 for his club in Manchester. He excelled in that role for Sale, and it may have been asking too much for him to switch to the pivotal number 10 spot for the Wallabies in the twilight of his Test career.

As both the end-of-year tour in 2021 and the second match against Argentina in San Juan amply illustrated, he looks and plays far more like a man who will fill in occasionally at first receiver, but does not want to spend the majority of his time organising and strategising attacking play from that spot.

That is why Dave Rennie recycles the phrase ‘implement the plan’ so often. In truth, he only has one outside-half capable of doing it, and that is Quade Cooper. Hence the return of Bernard Foley from feet up, piña colada on the terrace and the sunlit semi-retirement of Japanese club rugby. It would be no great surprise if ‘Nard’ goes straight into the starting team for the visit of the Springboks. It is the era of the middle-aged rugby quarterback, after all.

Rennie has also lost his long-time coaching companion Matt Taylor from his staff at roughly the same time as he lost Quade Cooper on the field. Even though ‘Lord Laurie’ Fisher has been added to the coaching group it is uncertain who will now shape the Wallaby defence. There is no obvious specialist in that area.

There is a lot of work to do before Australia step on to the field to play South Africa at the Adelaide Oval on Saturday. But then, it was exactly like that at the same stage of the season in 2021, when Quade Cooper returned from the international wilderness in such spectacular fashion to beat the world champions at the death.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the saying goes.

 

Rugby – The Roar 

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