As Rugby Australia stays quiet on whether there has been any interest in its State of the Union concept, Reds fly-half James O’Connor says his team is already “bleeding maroon” in the existing Super Rugby AU.
Saturday night’s preliminary final against the Rebels looms as a big night for both the Reds and O’Connor, with the club set to register a COVID-19 era record for crowd attendance at Suncorp Stadium.
The match also looms as a potential Wallabies fly-half trial, with Rebels star Matt To’omua coming off a succession of strong performances since his return to the No. 10 jersey.
But the bigger and more immediate prize is a place in the Super Rugby AU final against the Brumbies next weekend, with whom the Reds split their regular season games one apiece following last week’s commanding 28-7 win in Brisbane.
Central to the Reds revival, O’Connor says, has been coach Brad Thorn and his mantra that the team embrace the famous “Queenslander” spirit.
“I think that’s probably the biggest thing and why this week and this year means so much to us, everyone within our team, or at least 95 percent of our guys, have come through the Queensland ranks,” O’Connor told Radio TAB.
“We are Queenslanders, we bleed maroon. So there is just so much meaning to when we pull the jersey on and when we’re playing at home … it’s for Queensland – this is our home, this is our people and we want to bring the trophy back.”
Of the team that started against the Brumbies last week, only Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Brandon Paenga-Amosa were plucked from outside Queensland while Filipo Daugunu and Taniela Tupou came through the Reds NRC pathways after arriving in Australia from Fiji and New Zealand respectively.
The only other player who could potentially line up for New South Wales in a State of the Union would be Harry Wilson, who was born in NSW but then completed his senior schooling in Queensland.
As for the State of the Union series becoming a reality, a Rugby Australia spokesperson told ESPN there was genuine interest shown by broadcasters when the concept was first broached by RA chairman Hamish McLennan but they wouldn’t be drawn on whether that had then transferred into a formal rights bid.
Meanwhile, in O’Connor’s eyes, the other thing the Reds have going for them is a squad wise beyond its years whose players exist in a different head space to what he was at a similar age.
Remembered more for his off-field misadventures than his on-field exploits during the early part of his Test career, O’Connor is now a leader at the Reds and a player whose insights are welcomed from the younger contingent at Ballymore.
“They are good young men. I’ve thought about it often – when I was their age some of my decisions were very different to how they’re thinking and where their mind is at,” O’Connor said when comparing himself to some of the Reds’ youngsters.
“For me the best thing has just been my ability to come in and they’re just so open … you give them a little bit of feedback, ‘maybe tweak your line this way’ or when you’re checking out the field ‘start from left to right, you’ve got to open your full vision up,’ they literally just eat it up and you can see them constantly trying to work on their game.
“So for me there is some great talent coming through [in] Australia, and the fact that they are turning into good rugby players now, I can feel that momentum coming.
“Like on the weekend, [Jock Campbell] is really starting to come into his own, he’s started to move around the field; he’s linking up a lot of our attack and it’s something that at the start of the year it was something that didn’t come naturally to him at all … now he’s making breaks, [throwing flick passes], setting tries up; it’s great to see [his] development.”
If Rebels coach Dave Wessels sticks with To’omua at No. 10, then Saturday night’s showdown looms as a virtual Wallabies fly-half battle with coach Dave Rennie admitting recently that he now saw O’Connor as a five-eighth after originally thinking he was more suited at No. 12 or further along the backline.
To’omua is also an option at No. 12, and has played there several times for the Rebels this year, but the former Brumbies playmaker has also stated his preference is to wear the No. 10 jersey.
O’Connor was coy when asked whether he wanted to play 10 or 12 for the Wallabies, but he did admit he had spoken with Rennie about team plans for a yet-to-be finalized Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship schedule.
“We’ve had a few conversations around that [10 or 12] … they went well,” O’Connor said uncomfortably. “I can’t really give you too much on that because I haven’t really thought about it; obviously there’s been chat around when camp starts, and this and that.
“We have spoken a little bit about key structures and how we want to play, but for me it’s all on this weekend, this is our final against the Rebels.”