Wayne Smith | June 22, 2009
Article from: The Australian
JAMES O'Connor confirmed yesterday he would be staying put at the Western Force, dismissing an 11th-hour Queensland bid for his services as coming "too late".
But whether he also will be staying put in the Wallabies fullback position is anything but certain.
The Test sensation said he had not actually re-signed with the Force, but after months of wrestling with his future admitted Perth is where his head is "at".
"Mentally I'm there, pretty much," O'Connor, 18, said. "At the moment I'm happy with where I'm going. Over at the Force it's nice and solid. They've guided me pretty well."
Outwardly, things appear anything but nice and solid at the Reds, although head coach Phil Mooney clearly is hoping a change of forwards coach and of team manager will help arrest Queensland's fading fortunes.
O'Connor, born and raised on the Gold Coast where his family still lives, was as surprised as everyone else that his home state did not initially approach him with a contract offer. "I don't know too much. At the Reds they've got a good ball-playing structure with Berrick Barnes and Quade Cooper so I was always in two minds," he said.
"I heard last week about their interest. It was definitely a good option, to think about going home. I think their structural changes maybe came a bit too late."
The only lingering uncertainty about O'Connor involves his negotiations with the Australian Rugby Union, which is understood to be offering him only a modest top-up on his standard Super 14 contract. The mere fact an 18-year-old is going through a re-contracting process after three Tests highlights just how precocious a talent he is. Just for the record, he wants it known he has started to shave. "Just".
But for all the youthful excitement he brings to the game generally and to the Wallabies in particular, there are no guarantees he will hold his Test fullback position tomorrow when Robbie Deans announces his full-strength side to meet France in Sydney on Saturday.
Adam Ashley-Cooper, who played brilliantly at fullback against the Barbarians before being relieved in the 15 jersey by O'Connor for both Italy Tests, reapplied the pressure with a man-of-the-match performance off the bench against the Azzurri in Melbourne on Saturday night. Deans said he had been impressed by the maturity Ashley-Cooper showed when tossed initially on to the left wing as a blood-bin substitute for Peter Hynes and then at fullback, taking over from O'Connor in the 70th minute.
"He came on and he took the initiative," Deans said. "He didn't just feed off the work of others. He really stepped up and led and that's great."
The Wallabies coach ruefully acknowledges that the call on who would play as fullback was one of "many tough decisions" he would have to make this week, but he was quick to point out that Ashley-Cooper was by no means locked into just the one starting position. "Anyone who can thrive in a number of positions has a much better chance of starting," Deans said.
O'Connor and Ashley-Cooper might be jousting for the one Test spot, but each has a healthy respect for the other. "He had a cracker of a (starting) debut last week and I'm really proud of him," Ashley-Cooper said of his young rival. "It's really healthy for the team when kids like him come in and put pressure on players like me. It creates that competition and allows us to push ourselves even further. It's going to be very important for us in the long-term." O'Connor, likewise, was in awe of Ashley-Cooper's performance off the bench in Melbourne. "Coopey played really well last night. When he came on he just split them open," he said.
Although team officials had played down the significance of O'Connor missing training last week, the teenager yesterday revealed just how heavy the fitness cloud hanging over him before the match had been. "It wasn't the swine flu but I had bad stomach cramps," he said. "I don't know what to put it down to but I was bed-ridden for a couple of days. I felt OK out there. I'm not going to make any excuses."
He has little need for them, anyhow. Aside from dropping the first kick that came his way, the result of having too much time to think about what he would do next, and of occasionally being bumped out of the way in the scramble to haul in Craig Gower's bombs, O'Connor turned in another excellent game.
Had the ball bounced his way instead of into the arms of Tatafu Polota-Nau, he could have scored the Wallabies' first try and it was his thoughtfully delayed inside ball that sent Ryan Cross over for the team's second.