Whizz-kid

ADAM BURNETT, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says James O’Connor is worth his weight in gold to the Wallabies.

James O’Connor had no idea that this routine game of ‘dorm rugby’ was about to be his last. The teenager had taken heavier hits in his time, and any inkling that death’s door had just been rattled was almost too faint to heed. Almost. Had it not clicked for O’Connor to call a nurse – just to be on the safe side – he never would have woken up.

‘It was quite intense,’ recalls Australia’s latest backline sensation. ‘Dorm rugby at school was pretty much last man standing and I went to put a hit on one of my mates, but one of the other boys got him first. They both bumped into me and caught me off guard.’

Sounds innocuous enough. Primal even. A group of young males crashing into each other in an attempt to assert their dominance over the rest. Charles Darwin’s natural selection and all that.

‘Turns out I’d ruptured my spleen. I had three litres of blood sitting in my stomach,’ O’Connor reveals. ‘If I hadn’t had surgery within half an hour, I would have died.’

A fortunate phone call indeed. Fortune, though, is renowned for favouring the brave.

Search your thesaurus for the word ‘brave’ and a selection of synonyms will include: audacious, confident, daring, dashing, spirited, undaunted. Now rifle through every article on O’Connor from the past two years and you’ll be hard pressed to find an example where one of those words wasn’t being used to describe this 20-year-old superstar.

Despite a propensity for producing gifted ball-runners, few Australians in recent memory have hit the international scene with the same force as O’Connor. The second-youngest Wallaby in history, he scored a hat-trick in his first full international. At 18 years of age.

Since then, the diminutive danger man has picked up 19 Test caps, all the while learning the tools of his trade alongside his country’s most talented and experienced players.

Yep, James O’Connor is only just beginning to learn about international rugby. At 20, he’s still growing, and one can bet the house on the fact that his best rugby is still to come.

‘I didn’t seriously consider rugby union until Grade 11,’ says O’Connor, who spent most of his junior years playing rugby league, even getting as far as under-age representation with the Parramatta Eels – a Sydney-based club in the National Rugby League.

‘It was only at Nudgee College [in Brisbane] that I had the passion of the game drilled into me. It’s such a rugby union nursery, and ever since I went there I really started enjoying the game more [than league] – it’s a lot more open and it suits my game.’

Evidently. With only a couple of years’ rugby union experience to his name, O’Connor, who had previously been dismissed by most league recruits as being too small, caught the eye of Western Force scouts.

‘The Force were never a first option for me but then I was approached and I started to think about it,’ he says. ‘Matt Giteau went over there and I wanted to play outside him. They also had [former All Blacks coach] John Mitchell, so there were a couple of key role models there for me.’

In what seemed like no time, O’Connor had become the youngest debutant in Super Rugby history. His shock of blond hair wasn’t the only thing that caught the eye. Especially of the men who mattered.

‘Without a doubt,’ says Mitchell, when asked whether the plaudits being heaped upon the youngster are deserved. ‘For me, he is up there with Dan Carter and Matt Giteau. Up with Aaron Mauger. Andrew Mehrtens. Carlos Spencer. Those guys.’

That’s a pretty serious compliment. For a 20-year-old.

‘He has all the key ingredients in terms of balance, speed, power. Power to weight is the key, and the evidence there is Dan Carter,’ says Wallabies coach Robbie Deans. ‘James has skills, so he offers great versatility in covering positions.’

Versatile and quick, aggressive and smart. The doubters were quick to point out, however, that the man dubbed ‘Rabbit’ for his elusiveness, was missing a key ingredient in the modern game: size.

‘When I first started playing I knew that I had to put on some weight,’ O’Connor admits. ‘I came over to the Force weighing about 78kg. I’m about 88kg now. The big thing was not rushing it, putting on good weight, not just body mass. As you get older you put on weight naturally, so I’m just taking it step by step at the moment.

‘I’ve worked a lot in the gym doing extras to make sure I’m carrying my weight well. In terms of size-to-power ratio, I’m up there with the rest of the boys, and once I’m on the field, I just have a crack.’

Having a crack. It’s an attitude that reflects O’Connor’s youth, and one that has held him in good stead when he’s come up against the likes of Bryan Habana or Joe Rokocoko while wearing the green and gold of Australia.  Incredibly, his heritage means he could have actually been a team-mate of either.

‘Dad was a rugby man. He played for Counties Manukau [in New Zealand] as did my grandad,’ O’Connor reveals. ‘Most of my family are rugby lovers, because my mum’s South African, so they’re also all rugby mad.’

In fact, in 2008, even the Irish Rugby Union investigated the lineage of the backline flyer, yet the link – a great, great grandfather from Dublin – was too obscure. However, having spent much of his childhood in Te Atatu in Auckland, idolising Christian Cullen while also exploring his interest in rugby league, the interest from across the Tasman was almost inevitable. And while the New Zealand Rugby Union discovered the connection early in O’Connor’s development, the choice, he insists, was a no-brainer.

‘When I was younger I used to watch the All Blacks,’ he says, ‘but ever since I started playing at Nudgee it was always my dream to play for the Wallabies – I even had a Wallabies jersey in my final years of high school that I’d wear to training. As soon as I knew they wanted me, it wasn’t a tough decision.’

It took this particular piece of Wallaby gold a little while, however, to be convinced that his country did actually want him.

‘When I heard that I’d made the Wallabies I thought it was my mates or someone geeing me up,’ he says with a laugh. ‘I was on my last week of holiday, over on Stradbroke Island [off the coast of Queensland] just chilling out with 10 of my best mates. One of my mates said he’d got a call from my mum saying they couldn’t get in touch with me because I had no cell reception. I didn’t believe it until my dad got on to me and said, “Look, you’ve got an hour to get to the airport. Get on that next flight back to the mainland”.

‘My first year was definitely a whirlwind, and even last year, I wasn’t expecting to start any games – I was just trying to soak up the environment and learn as much as possible from all the senior players. I’m still pinching myself about what’s happened.’

The hype surrounding O’Connor’s rise – with the Gold Coast product immediately dubbed ‘the next Matt Giteau’ – was quickly justified. The move from the Gold Coast to Perth came easily, and so too did the rigours of Super Rugby. His quality passing, ability to find a gap, and surprising strength all pointed to higher honours. And where O’Connor was right for the Wallabies, the Wallabies were most certainly right for him.

‘I can’t believe how much it’s helped my game. You’re training and playing with the best players in Australia, so it’s a very competitive environment,’ he explains. ‘Every training session is like a game, and you learn so much that way because you’re always being pushed to your limits. Having those guys around you training at 100% all the time just pushes you that little bit more. You’re always picking up little skills.

‘And Robbie is such a deep thinker on the game. As an example, we’ll be doing backline moves – half the team on half the team – and out of nowhere, Robbie will say, “Why don’t you try this?” And so we’ll do it, and it’ll work. He reads the game so well.’

Last September – a month before he was named Australia’s Rookie of the Year – O’Connor committed his immediate future to the Force, re-signing until the end of 2011 for a reported A$1.2 million (R7.2 million). The deal made him one of Australia’s highest-paid teenaged sportsmen.

‘It was a tough decision,’ he says. ‘I wanted to stay in Perth because I was enjoying my time there, and there are a lot of good players around me. I also wanted to repay the faith they’d shown in developing me.

‘The big question was whether we could get a 10 who I could work off, because losing Giteau was pretty big for me. But then when I heard André Pretorius was on board, it was a big factor looking ahead [Pretorius, though, was injured in pre-season and never played in this year’s Super 14].’

And what about the cash? How does a kid keep a lid on those dollars?

‘I guess I just look at the money as a bonus,’ he says with a smile. ‘I’d be playing rugby anyway, regardless of whether I was making money from it or not. But it’s good to be financially stable. I’ve already started investing my money a little bit, trying to be smart with it. Rugby’s only really a 10-year stint so I have to make the most of it.’

– This article first appeared in the September issue of SA Rugby magazine.
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