The Tri Nations might be out of reach, but James O’Connor says Dave Rennie won’t be using the Wallabies’ final Test of the year as an opportunity to simply blood the next generation of talent.
2020 has been a rebuilding year of sorts, but with four of the Wallabies’ six Tests against the All Blacks and silverware up for grabs until now it’s given very little scope for Rennie to “experiment” and cast an eye to the future.
Sure, Rennie may have handed 10 players debuts but that’s no outrageously large number, particularly in the year after a World Cup campaign which often sees a mass exodus to the north.
But given the Wallabies need to start winning regularly and the fact they haven’t won their final Test of a year since 2013, it’s more than likely that Rennie will roll out what he believes is his best 23 for the here and now.
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At least, that’s the view of playmaker O’Connor, who after missing the past three Tests because of separate leg and foot injuries, is expected to return to the No.10 jersey against the Pumas on Saturday at Bankwest Stadium.
“No, we’re taking this as a must-win game for us,” the 30-year-old emphatically said, after being asked whether he thought Rennie would experiment.
“It’s very important for our campaign and moving forward to as a group.
“We’ve spoken about it a lot; it’s not just finishing the year this way, it’s almost spring-boarding us.”
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Until COVID-19 brought the world to a halt, the Wallabies were due to play Tests against Fiji and Ireland before their usual Rugby Championship campaign and a Spring Tour to round out the year.
But their calendar was halved as a result of the pandemic and, as such, Rennie’s rebuild has been slowed.
The expected return of O’Connor, as well a fit-again Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, could well quell the ambitions that one or two youngsters may have had of starting out their Test careers against the Pumas.
But as Salakaia-Loto said on Sunday, sometimes it’s best to bide your time and come back hungrier.
“Whether they get an opportunity or not, I’m sure it’ll leave an experience in the back of their minds that’ll make them work harder to get those regular spots or a debut,” the maturing forward said.
“I remember my camp, I didn’t get a debut and it just made me more hungry. You can look at it one way, but you can use it as fuel.”
O’Connor’s return comes at a curious time too.
In his absence, Reece Hodge filled in admirably and even guided the Wallabies to a win in Brisbane, but few believe the versatile back - with arguably the longest boot in world rugby - is a genuine long-term fly-half option.
Nonetheless, it’s understood the Wallabies’ coaching structure, who now pick the side after Michael O’Connor’s exit from Rugby Australia, were impressed with Hodge’s return to the role he played as a youngster.
The next generation, too, got a crack but Noah Lolesio’s tough night at the office on debut showed the benefit of experience.
But given O’Connor is 30 and Rennie has spoken about the four-year plan the Wallabies have on the road the World Cup, youth will likely need to be called upon at some stage.
It’s why O’Connor was desperate to return as quick as possible from his initial MCL injury, which ultimately resulted him injuring his foot, as he tried to speed up his recovery.
“Well, you never want to give someone an opportunity in your spot,” he said plainly.
“That’s why I pushed to rush back the week earlier with my injury.
“In saying that, I have huge trust in whatever’s meant to happen will happen as long as I do what’s correct for myself.
“He (Hodge) has done a really good job, but I’d still like to put my hand up and get that jersey back.”
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Even if O’Connor does return at 10, the former golden boy of Australian rugby believes Hodge deserves a crack somewhere.
“I think Hodgey’s done a great job steering the ship around … I think he’s definitely earned his spot to stay there,” he said.
Just where though remains the questions, particularly given O’Connor hinted that rising midfield combination Hunter Paisami and Jordan Petaia would heavily feature in their attacking plans on Saturday.
“The best element is that they compliment each other,” O’Connor said.
“They can run short lines and out lines, but their strengths - without giving too much away of how we want to create our attack plan this week - literally compliment each other.
“They can play up and down straight, they can get in those wide channels, they can both hit and one of the other big things they have (is) a pretty good understanding of each other and (the) lines that they’re manipulating defences with.
“For me as a 10 it makes my job easy because I can get those comms early and know that they can create and I don’t have to come around the corner and try and manipulate myself.”
Rennie will name his Wallabies team on Thursday.
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