Rugby: Sleepyhead O'Connor feels coldness of bench

By David Leggat

Australia v Italy
North Harbour Stadium, 3.30pm, Sunday

James O'Connor yesterday discovered there is no easy passage back into favour for those who let down the Wallaby cause.

The talented young back was dumped from the Australian team which secured the Tri-Nations title and beat the All Blacks 25-20 on August 27.

The story goes that on August 19, the day the Australian Cup squad walked down the steps of one of their sponsor's aeroplanes to take their first bow, O'Connor slept through an alarm call after a late night and missed his reporting time for the announcement.

Coach Robbie Deans was distinctly unimpressed, but has included the young sleepyhead on the bench for their opening Pool C game against Italy at North Harbour Stadium on Sunday - and he added the rider that this was indeed Australia's best XV.

The message was clear: O'Connor still has some work to do to get back into the first-choice starting side.

"He's one step closer," Deans said yesterday. "The game is about those who are available and lucky enough to get that opportunity. Most players don't waste those opportunities when presented with them.

That's the key; make the most of the time that you've got."

If O'Connor is skilled at reading between lines, he'll have got the message.

Deans made it clear he's looking forward, not back, putting the O'Connor situation in the context of "part of the life cycle of a rugby side".

"He's not alone. We'll only be as good as the way the squad approaches their work. There are blokes who are in the 15 now who may not stay there. That's part of rugby life."

Deans said the reason for picking his best team was partly respect for the Italians, partly respect for the Australian jersey, and because it was logical.

He wanted the continuity of the players from the last test - dryly quipping that "they did okay" at Suncorp Stadium.

"We have a lot of respect for the Italian side," Deans said. "I watched them earlier in the year when they should have tipped over Ireland, probably should have beaten Wales and did beat France, and we've struggled against them ourselves in recent times.

"But also it's a sign of respect for ourselves. World Cups don't come around that often so it's got a lot of meaning for these blokes to pull on the jersey and represent the country at a World Cup."

Deans' new captain James Horwill, whose test captaincy record stands at 1-0 after the All Black victory, knows the Italians fancy a forward battle.

"Their scrum is a real weapon, and that's something we've identified and worked on. We've focused on set pieces, the lineout, maul, they like to use that part of the game as a weapon."

Horwill talked of the importance of enjoying "the stuff around the edges", such as yesterday's welcome. "It's just part of what World Cups bring, and it doesn't happen all the time."

Anyone hanging out for a fancy line from the tall Queensland lock on his elevation at short notice in place of Rocky Elsom, might have a long wait.

"I haven't put too much extra thought into it," Horwill said. "I've just tried to get down to business and do what I can to help the team, just do everything I can to win football games."

As a statement in the best "roll your sleeves up and follow me boys" tradition, that'll do nicely.

Italy arrive in Auckland late tomorrow morning, having started their Cup preparations in Nelson. They are to name their side on Friday.

DEANS' SYMPATHY FOR CANTERBURY

There is a stand in his family's name at Christchurch's shattered stadium. He is one of Canterbury rugby's favourite sons. So it's understandable that Robbie Deans has a strong antenna for the emotions at play in the city on the eve of the World Cup.

Australia's match against Italy was to have been played at Jade Stadium on Sunday before February's earthquake devastated the city.

"I'm certainly disappointed for the people of Canterbury," he said. "It's been a very tough pill for them to swallow. The earth is still moving, and the challenges still go on there and will last a long time."

Raised in the province, Deans knows well the passion in historically one of the country's most successful rugby provinces.

"It will be a tough time for them seeing the rest of the country getting access to rugby that they're not having."

Australia will visit Christchurch during the tournament, but how much support Deans can inspire for the Wallabies is a moot point.

"I suspect after last weekend [when Australia beat the All Blacks] that the lines may be drawn," he quipped.

AUSTRALIA v ITALY

Australia

15 - Kurtley Beale
14 - A. Ashley-Cooper
13 - Anthony Fainga'a
12 - Pat McCabe
11 - Digby Ioane
10 - Quade Cooper
9 - Will Genia
8 - Radike Samo
7 - David Pocock
6 - Rocky Elsom
5 - James Horwill (c)
4 - Dan Vickerman
3 - Ben Alexander
2 - Stephen Moore
1 - Sekope Kepu

Reserves: Tatafu Polota Nau, James Slipper, Rob Simmons, Ben McCalman, Scott Higginbotham, Luke Burgess, James O'Connor.

- NZ Herald

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