Prodigal gun can lead Wallabies revival
It wasn't that long ago that just about everyone had given up on James O'Connor, dismissing the party boy as one of the biggest waste of talents in Australian rugby.
No longer. The reformed wild child is in such high demand after he cleaned up his act and made a stunning return to the Test side last year that he's looming as one of the potential saviours for the Wallabies this season.
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The only dilemma is which position the Wallabies should play him in because there are so many trouble spots that need urgent filling.
New Wallabies' coach Dave Rennie is believed to favour playing O'Connor at five-eighth - the problem position Michael Cheika just couldn't settle on in Japan last year - and his stats so far this season mount a pretty good case.
In his two starts for the Reds in the No. 10 jersey, O'Connor has chalked up more runs (14), metres gained (91), tackle busts (8) and linebreak assists (4) than any other Australian five-eighth in Super Rugby this season.
But former Wallabies Phil Kearns and Rod Kafer are not sure that's his best position.
Kearns thinks O'Connor would be better suited at inside centre - filling the enormous hole left by Samu Kerevi.
"James is doing a good job for Queensland but I'd really like him at 12," Kearns told Rugby Central.
"Matt To'omua has done a very good job so I can see him starting there but I really like what Noah Lolesio is doing at the Brumbies. He's still young so he makes a few mistakes but he's getting better each week so who knows what he's going to be like once he has another five or six Super Rugby matches under his belt.
"As (1991 World Cup winning coach) Bob Dwyer used to say, if you're good enough you're old enough so I'd be seriously looking at him."
Kafer also likes what he sees in the next crop of five eighths but isn't in favour of throwing them into the deep end just yet, preferring instead to let them find their feet at Super Rugby before plunging into Test rugby.
"The expectation with young guys is that they have tremendous skills but you know they're going to make some errors so they need time to get that out of their game," Kafer said.
"You want to pick guys who are going to be around for a cycle that might be two to four years.
"There are some guys in the bracket, like Nic White, Matt To'omua and James O'Connor so I think the selectors will go with them for now and give the younger players a bit more time to develop and eliminate the errors in their games."
The one, depressing thing is both former Wallabies agree on is that no-one has really put their hand up for higher selection this season - primarily because of the awful start the Australian teams have made in Super Rugby.
That makes it tougher for Rennie and his fellow selectors Scott Johnston and Michael O'Connor to opt for any real left-field selections for the first Test against Ireland in Brisbane on July 4.
The Brumbies' combination of Allan Alaalatoa, Folau Fainga'a and Scott Sio are looming as the likely Australian front row though Kearns is a big fan of teenage Waratah prop Angus Bell.
Izack Rodda looks to have one second row spot sewn up while Michael Hooper has a mortgage on open side flanker, and with it the captaincy even though he gave up his job as Waratahs skipper.
The other back row positions are up for grabs but the bolter could be with Queensland number eight Harry Wilson, with Kafer a believer. "I've been very impressed," Kafer said. "He's still making two or three mistakes too many a game but he's still very young and only going to get better."
The competition for places in the backline is wide open.
While Nic White is the likely first choice to start at halfback, Queensland's Tate McDermott has caught the eye of the selectors and Dane Haylett-Petty looks to have edged ahead of Kurtley Beale for the job of starting fullback.
If there's one sure bet it's Marika Koroibete on one wing but most of the other spots are still up for grabs with plenty of time left with Rennie not moving to Australia until June when he finishes his current role in Glasgow.
The Kiwi has already ditched the mid-season camps that Cheika liked so the full squad won't get together until two weeks before the opening test, although players in contention for selection will be involved in state-based training programs once their team has been eliminated from Super Rugby
With only one Australian team likely to be in the finals, that means the bulk of the Wallabies will be free for five weeks so could make their last pushes for selection in club rugby.
JAMIE PANDARAM PICKS HIS WALLABIES TEAM
15. Dane Haylett-Petty: Dependable under the high ball, great positioning and a reliable kicking game. He has made plenty of post-contact metres already in this Super Rugby season, although his defence can improve. He is a proven Test performer and the most solid option for the first Test against Ireland on July 4.
14. Tom Banks: His speed, footwork and enormous boot will be important weapons against an Ireland team determined to pin the Wallabies in their own quarter and pressure them into errors. Banks has been consistently excellent at Super Rugby level for two years with little reward; now is his time.
13. Reece Hodge: The luckless Jordan Petaia would have been a certainty at outside centre after he proved to be one of the few bright lights from last year's World Cup campaign but he is unavailable because of injury. Hodge's versatility, giant boot and experience playing alongside To'omua and Koroibete make him a safe option at 13.
12. Matt To'omua: While he has stated his intention to start at five-eighth and plays there for Melbourne, To'omua's punishing midfield defence is too valuable an asset against Ireland. His game control and measured timing, along with his varied kicking game, makes him a near complete inside centre.
11. Marika Koroibete: Australia's most potent player will walk into the starting side regardless of Super form. His world Cup efforts were sensational and he is the man rival defences will have most difficulty shutting down.
10. James O'Connor: Quite the resurrection story for a guy who was viewed by many as the greatest waste of talent in Wallabies history. O'Connor is head and shoulders above the pack for the No. 10 Test jersey. His last two games for Queensland have shown the poise and destructive capabilities he promised early in his career then threatened to never showcase in the international arena again after his 2013 sacking by Rugby Australia.
9. Nic White: One of my biggest concerns for the Wallabies, alongside hooker and lock, is the lack of strong options at halfback. So unimpressive is the field that I would start White, who could still be playing finals in the English premiership two weeks prior to the first Test against Ireland. His running game is key, and I'd gamble on youth off the bench.
8. Isi Naisarani: A quiet start to the season, but he exploded last weekend against the Waratahs and showed the value of his powerful ball carries and smashing defence. His height and offloading abilities mark him as the standout No. 8 in the land.
7. Michael Hooper: While he has stood down as captain of NSW and questions linger about whether new coach Dave Rennie will continue with him as skipper of the Wallabies, in my mind Hooper must start and remain captain. His work ethic in attack and defence is unrivalled, and with the flood of senior Wallaby departures overseas he is best placed to lead the team for at least the next 12 months.
6. Rob Valetini: A big body who enjoys collision and can bend the line. I particularly like Valetini because of his clean-out work. Looking at the early trends, where Kiwi and South African teams are blitzing the breakdown for turnovers, the job of the pack to retain ball possession this year will be the crucial element to winning Test matches. Valetini can be the enforcer of the pack.
5. Matt Philip: The underrated lock has made an impressive start to the season and while he's been involved in Wallabies camps before, at 25 he seems ready to take the next step. Philip benefits from a lack of options and form among the nation's second-rowers, but he is a strong lineout jumper and gets busy around the field.
4. Izack Rodda: Having signed a long-term deal to stay in Australia, there's no doubt Rodda will be a mainstay of the pack for some time. On his day he can be a game-changer, but consistency has eluded him. Rodda was outstanding during patches for the Wallabies last year and must rise further in 2020.
3. Allan Alaalatoa: He's taken the captaincy of the Brumbies and with the leadership responsibility his game has also grown. Very impressive workrate in the opening rounds shows he wants to lead by example. His scrum combination with his fellow Brumbies front-rowers will help Australia.
2. Folau Fainga'a: The try-scoring machine is now entrenched as Australia's best hooker, with daylight second. The departures of Tolu Latu and Tatafu Polota-Nau, and injury to Jordan Uelese, means the Wallabies will be in a frightful mess should Fainga'a go down with injury.
1. Scott Sio: A rock at loose-head who will also play a key role in leadership during the transformation of this Wallabies team. Sio's scrummaging, lifting and work in driving mauls have been highlights in the Brumbies' early success.
Reserves: I've taken a youth policy in many respects with the bench. Rennie must plan to win now but also look to the future, and I've no doubt that Harry Wilson, Mark Nawaqanitawase and Tate McDermott will wear gold in future, so give them a shot.
16. Alex Mafi 17. James Slipper 18. Taniela Tupou 19. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto 20. Harry Wilson 21. Tate McDermott 22. Tevita Kuridrani 23. Mark Nawaqanitawase.