Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: O'Connor backing a winner - himself

First-five one of three new faces in Deans' Wallaby side for opening duel with Lions.

James O'Connor. Photo / Getty Images
James O'Connor. Photo / Getty Images

James O'Connor lacks experience as a first five-eighths in the international arena, and hasn't played a test in 19 months.

But what the designated Wallabies playmaker doesn't lack before tonight's first test against the Lions is confidence.

"It's going to be a huge occasion. I'm very confident in how it's all going and how we've gelled as a team," O'Connor said after he was named as Australia's first-choice No10. "I'm very confident, very pumped."

O'Connor has played 37 tests since becoming the second-youngest player selected in a Wallaby squad, against Italy in November 2008.

He scored three tries in his run-on debut, again against Italy, in Canberra the following June, and 12 tries in all as he shuffled between starting spots at wing, centre and fullback or from the bench. He didn't add to his test cap tally last year after lacerating his liver in a Super rugby match, but he has no concerns about missing an international season.

And while O'Connor seems to have been around the Australian team for a long time, he'll turn 23 on the eve of the third test against the Lions in Sydney on July 6.

Critics can't doubt O'Connor's individuality. He built what the Australian media dubbed the "brand O'Connor" image by brokering some of the best deals in Super rugby, first with the Western Force and then with the Melbourne Rebels.

He was born on Australia's glitzy Gold Coast and spent some of his early childhood playing in New Zealand before returning to Queensland to hone his rugby talent. He's had some unique hairstyles and has been compared in looks to the young Canadian singer Justin Bieber.

Whatever anybody thinks of him, as far as O'Connor is concerned, he's got pedigree as a No10.

And that's despite starting only one test in the position, kicking three conversions and a penalty goal in a 24-18 win in his last test against Wales in December 2011.

"Growing up, I played 10. My last game with the Wallabies was at 10 and it was against Wales," he said.

"We're quite aware of the background there. I'm confident, there's a lot of guys around me who can help the transition."

He is ready to stand in the front line and take on anyone running into the No10 channel - and he knows there'll be plenty of traffic. The Lions' backline will be directed by big Welsh halfback Mike Phillips and Irish No10 Jonathan Sexton, who'll send big Welsh wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert plus a host of powerful forwards in O'Connor's direction.

"It's not new for a five-eighths. I've been used to that all my life," he said of his defensive duties. "I'm very much up for this opportunity, the occasion. The shoulders are ready."

- AP

- NZ Herald

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