Rugby: Will locker tussle be lucky omen for Magpie flanker

By SHANE HURNDELL


Magpies v Turbos

McLean Park, Napier

Fifteen minutes after the Hawke's Bay Magpies rugby team's training session had finished at Napier's McLean Park on Thursday some serious stuff was going down.

An elimination kick-off involving the team's 15 players who have yet to make a first class appearance for the side, including Blues openside flanker Brendon O'Connor, were battling for the five spare lockers in the team's changing room. Drop an attempted catch and players were eliminated ... simple as that.

Magpies assistant coach Danny Lee was supervising the kick-off like an international referee. Four rounds were required and O'Connor managed to get the last locker.

Naturally former Canterbury representative and Gisborne Boys' High School product O'Connor, 23, will be hoping that feat proves a lucky omen for him in his Magpies first class debut, today's ITM Cup Championship opener against the Manawatu Turbos at McLean Park.

He is also keen to maintain his unbeaten run with the Magpies - last weekend's 33-32 pre-season win against Auckland was his first outing in Bay colours.

"There's an extra incentive for me too ... I don't want to disappoint Mum and Dad," O'Connor said referring to his Gisborne-based parents Rick and Rosanna who have ran the Aberdeen Fish Shop for almost 30 years. "They came to last weekend's game and will be eager to see the Magpies win again. They came to some of my Blues games but not too many ... Gisborne is so isolated it was a six hour drive up to Auckland for them.

"When I was playing for Canterbury it was a $300 flight for each of them so they didn't get to many of those games either. At least here it's just a three hour drive each way for them.

"It sort of reminds me of my Super 8 games with Gisborne Boys' High School ... Mum and Dad managed to get to most of those games by taking time off work," O'Connor explained.

He has no regrets about transferring from Canterbury, a union he made 17 first class appearances for during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, to Hawke's Bay for his ITM Cup play.

"It's good to be here ... Napier is a beach city just like home," O'Connor said referring to Gisborne.

By playing for the Magpies O'Connor gets to compete with Maori All Black and Hurricanes openside flanker Karl Lowe for a starting berth. O'Connor's outstanding 40 minutes off the bench against Auckland secured him the nod for today's game.

"Karl is a good man and a good player. I'm learning from him and we challenge each other at trainings. There's a lot of depth in this season's Magpies squad which means healthy competition for berths and the whole team benefits," O'Connor said.

He is starting a two-year deal with the Magpies and also has another season to run on his Blues contract. O'Connor, who played under Magpies head coach Craig Philpott for two years when Philpott had the Canterbury Colts team, is looking forward to more game time with the Blues next year.

"This year was my first of Super Rugby and a big learning year. A lot of us at the Blues were in the same position and learnt how to be professional on and off the field and how to prepare for games.

"Despite our inexperience we still had a chance of making the semifinals. It was still in our hands until we had a couple of crucial losses," O'Connor said.

"It was good to get a win over a lot of my Blues teammates who were here with Auckland last weekend as we don't play them during the cup season. Obviously that game's gone now and our attention turns to the Turbos ... I'm just excited about getting out there and it's important we get a good win and make a good start to our campaign."

"Chonnor" (O'Connor's nickname since his Year 9 days) is one paper away from completing a bachelor of sports coaching degree. However his studies will be reduced while he focuses on his Magpies commitments.

The 2009 New Zealand U20s teammate of Magpies Zac Guildford and Trent Boswell-Wakefield, O'Connor has played off a 16 handicap at golf and is expecting the tussle for the top golfer title within the Magpies squad to be as intense as the battle was for the final changing room locker.

In anticipation of wet weather and with the intention of dominating the Turbos up front as they did in the 46-14 pre-season win in Palmerston North, Philpott has gone for a five-two forwards-backs split on his subs bench. Lowe and Boswell-Wakefield are joined on the bench by former Junior All Black and Rebels hooker Ged Robinson, in-form prop Jody Allen and one of the tallest locks in the Cup Johan Schoonbee while the back subs are former Hurricanes halfback Chris Eaton and French first five-eighth Regis Lespinas.

Like O'Connor said, there is plenty of depth. With this sort of depth the Magpies shouldn't lose the Kel Tremain Memorial Cup clash.

But that was the case when the Magpies travelled to Palmy last year and lost 20-7. That's one of the attractions of the ITM Cup ... anything can happen on any given day. However if the Magpies can play like they've trained and competed for those spare lockers with a huge home crowd - the Hawke's Bay Union is expecting more than 7000 - behind them the margin for a Turbos upset should be reduced.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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