The speculation is over – James O’Connor is Wallaby flyhalf for the first test against the British & Irish Lions on Saturday.
So, rather than debating whether he should play there or not, let’s turn our focus to the areas he’ll need to pay attention to if he’s going to be successful in guiding the Wallabies around the park on Saturday night. I think there are six key areas for a flyhalf as follows (not in any order of importance):
- Occupying the defence;
- Distribution to the key ball carriers;
- Kicking in general play;
- Decision making; and
- Game management.
JOC’s defence has been quite good in the limited game time he’s had in 2013 for the Rebels – 65 tackles attempted and only 5 missed for a 92% completion rate.
I don’t have statistics for his defence when in the front line as opposed to when playing in the back three but, particularly with Jamie Roberts unavailable for the Lions, I don’t expect JOC’s defence in the front line will be tested that much and shouldn’t be an issue.
It’s a vital role of the flyhalf to pose a running threat for the defence. If a flyhalf doesn’t take the ball to the line from time to time, the defence can focus their attention solely on the ball carriers.
When JOC played at #10 for the Wallabies in 2011 against the Barbarians and Wales one of the things I was impressed with was his direct running – there was very little cross field running and if he decided to take the ball to the line he made the decision very quickly. That speed of decision making is so important – either go for it or distribute the ball quickly – don’t hesitate, which gives the defence time to move up on you and then when they’re in your face, distribute to another player and transfer the pressure to them. Every moment you spend crabbing across field gives the defence the advantage.
Watching JOC play #10 for the Rebels this year in Super Rugby he still shows some of the directness he exhibited in 2011 but he’s also been guilty of running across field too much. If he does that against the Lions he’ll create a lot of pressure for the Wallabies.
JOC has a reasonable passing game. He can make a long pass and he can pass left to right, however like nearly every player in world rugby his right to left pass is better. I don’t see his passing as a major problem.
The keys things I think he needs to focus on in this area are not starting too deep and the speed of distribution – give the ball early enough so that the ball carrier still has enough time to do something with it before the defence gets to them.
JOC’s a reasonable kicker and doesn’t have a problem with distance – after all his average kick of 43 metres in Super Rugby this year compares favourably to Jesse Mogg’s average of 44 metres.
However, distance is not all that’s required – I showed you the other day where the space is with the Lions defensive system and if the Wallabies are to take advantage of this space JOC will have to be very accurate under pressure.