The James O'Connor experiment
James O’Connor (JOC), an extremely talented kid with a huge future, has had the unenviable task of being thrust into the starting fly-half role for the British and Irish Lions series, and ultimately failed in this pursuit.
Through the conclusion of this series, it has become clear that Robbie Deans’ experiment with JOC in the starting 10 jersey was an obvious failure as he crumpled under the immense pressure of the once-every-twelve-year Test series.
You have to feel for the young superstar however, as he has extremely limited experience in this position in the Super Rugby competition, and even less in the Test arena, making the task dumped upon him by Deans even more daunting.
Deans has recently been widely criticised for his handling of the claims made by Quade Cooper regarding the ‘toxic team environment’ surrounding the Wallabies. The decision has come back to bite the ARU as Quade has been shunned from the national team ever since, resulting in a new fly-half having to be selected. But back to James’s performance in the recent Lions Test series in which he lacked awareness and serious play making ability throughout.
The entire series has been one mistake after another for James who made a whopping six personal errors across the three Tests, and along with Kurtley Beale accounted for 40% of the teams errors in the 2nd Test alone. A number of errors made by this ‘experimental’ number 10 appeared to be ‘rookie’ errors, in which he was simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the occasion and the new pressure he experienced in his new position.
JOC’s error-prone performance throughout the Test series wasn’t his only shortcoming, as from fly-half he was unable to stretch and create holes in the defensive line for supporting runners or creating line break opportunities, the primary objective of a fly-half or playmaker.
A major reason for this failure lies in his outside back and wing experience. Consistently throughout the series, he ruined any chance of making the gain line off set piece by standing unreasonably deep in the pocket, allowing the defence to rush up and shut down any attacking promise while keeping the opposition behind the advantage line.
And in the circumstance that James was standing in an appropriate attacking position, he would swiftly shovel the ball onto a teammate outside, engaging no defenders and therefore making it immensely hard to breach the defensive line.
The constant cross-field predictable running from O’Connor at 10 further hampered attacking opportunities presented to the Wallabies, limiting them to four tries over the three-match Test series. Four tries in a three-game stat is flattering at the least considering half of the tries came from Wallaby flier Israel Folau.
Constantly performing this ineffective action is an obvious sign of an inexperienced fly-half, clearly stemming from James’s limited experience in this position. Not only does JOC running across the field from 10 limit attacking opportunities for the outside backs, it makes the defenders job significantly easier, hence why the British and Irish Lions were able to so effectively shut down Wallaby attacking raids and concede only 7 line breaks during the Wallabies series.
Ultimately the James O’Connor experiment failed spectacularly and backfired for Deans who now faces serious rumours regarding his future with the Wallabies. His inexperience at this position was on display for all to see as he chocked at the helm of the spluttering Wallabies backline attack.