O’Connor continued to impress in the Reds’ heartbreaking round-five loss to the Brumbies in Canberra, pulling the playmaker’s strings adeptly to put his ball-runners into space, and using his kicking game to help the visitors almost pull off the upset.
“He’s played less rugby at No.10 but he’s done a great job for them because he gives confidence to people around him and he’s got an excellent skill set. I think he’s done a great job,” Rennie said, not missing the significance for a Wallabies group that will feature many talented but inexperienced young players.
Matt Toomua’s similar – their ability to play on top of defences … is a real strength of theirs and really important for us.
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie
“That’s important for us. We know he can play No.10, we know he can play midfield. More seasoned players being on top of their game is really important for us.”
Rennie confirmed he was considering the 52-Test utility for the vacant Australia No.10 jersey, such was O’Connor’s dedication to his craft this season.
“He can play both,” he said. “I would have thought earlier in the year [he was] probably not a No.10 and more a No.12. He can play No.13 too. He’d prefer not to, he thinks probably he doesn’t have the leg speed to play No.13.”
But he also hinted at a potential pairing with one of Australia’s younger playmakers, such as Noah Lolesio or Will Harrison, or the Brumbies’ Bayley Kuenzle. And he name-dropped Rebels five-eighth Matt Toomua as another ‘seasoned’ performer.
“If you imagine him as a No.12, the quality of communication, he’s got a kicking game, he’s a really good distributor, the ability to play in the face of defences,” Rennie said.
“Whether it’s 10 or 12 – Matt Toomua’s similar – their ability to play on top of defences and make decisions late is a real strength of theirs and really important for us.”
Rennie will open his Wallabies tenure with back-to-back Tests against the All Blacks in Sydney and Brisbane before taking the squad to his homeland for an extended period to play in the Rugby Championship, which features another two Tests against New Zealand.
Fan reaction has been almost universally characterised by dread, with some peeking-from-behind-the-fingers hope. While the All Blacks will be undergoing their own transition under Ian Foster, few Australians can imagine this being the year the Wallabies break an 18-year Bledisloe drought.
Rennie does not shy away from the mountain his players will need to climb but says the hub-style Rugby Championship also presents the Wallabies with a unique bonding opportunity.
“It’s going to be a baptism of fire if we end up playing four Tests against the All Blacks,” he said.
“If the Rugby Championship goes ahead and we end up spending a lot of time in New Zealand as a group, that will be gold for us. While it’s a really tough challenge, it’s an opportunity to be in each other’s pockets for a long period of time, to create a really strong culture, to get a lot of work done and a lot of detail around the technical side of the game or the conditioning side. So hopefully guys have a far better understanding and will come back and play far better Super Rugby.
“We’re well aware of the challenge but we’re not looking for excuses and we’ve got to try to create a mindset where the expectation is that, if we fight for each other for 80 minutes, we win.
“What the All Blacks leave out will be interesting – there’ll be some unbelievable players that won’t play for them this year, so we’ve just got to find 30 or 40 guys who we think can do the job regardless of the situation.”
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Georgina Robinson is the chief rugby reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.