Andrew Mehrtens and Dave Rennie have endorsed James O’Connor’s claims to the Wallabies 10 jersey.
All Blacks legend Andrew Mehrtens and Wallabies coach Dave Rennie have endorsed James O’Connor’s claims to the Test 10 jersey as a host of talented youngsters snap at his heels.
Rugby’s most important position has been an issue for Australia since Bernard Foley lost his mojo and Quade Cooper’s cons started to outweigh his pros.
O’Connor’s sparkling form for the Reds earnt him first crack at five-eighth for the Wallabies last season but injury meant he was unable to fully stamp his name on the jersey.
Mr Fix It Reece Hodge filled in admirably but the jury remains out as to his best position while Rennie also introduced rising Brumbies star Noah Lolesio to the Test furnace last season.
And then there is the experience of Rebels playmaker Matt To’omua and the upside of Waratahs young gun Will Harrison.
But Mehrtens, the Kiwi superboot now commentating for Nine and Stan Sport, believes the jersey is O’Connor’s to lose ahead of Super Rugby AU kickoff on Friday.
“O’Connor I like and he’s always been a precocious talent, all the way through,” Mehrtens told Wide World of Sports.
“As he’s aged of course, he doesn’t have quite the same speed or sharpness as he used to but he’s also got that experience as well.
“He’s built into a really good modern international 10 and we saw how well he played (last year). Obviously there were contrasting games with the Wallabies where sometimes they were on the back foot and it’s hard to look good as a 10 when you’re on the back foot.
“When they were on the front foot he was fantastic and the drawn game in Wellington (against the All Blacks) he had a really good game.
“He’s going to be really good for bringing his knowledge and experience for the younger 10s coming through. To have him available and in the mix as a 10 is really good for Dave Rennie.”
O’Connor, the reformed bad boy of Australian rugby, will captain the Reds in Liam Wright’s 10-week injury absence, starting with the opening round blockbuster against the Waratahs in Brisbane.
Another strong Super Rugby campaign should regain him the Test jersey for France’s three Test tour Down Under in July.
“He performed pretty well (last year) and he’s now had a year of working with Dave Rennie so that’s invaluable as well, the connection between your head coach and fly half,” said Mehrtens, rugby’s ninth highest point scorer with 967 from 70 Tests.
“So after having that year, they’ll be better placed this year. We’re two and a half years out from the next World Cup which doesn’t seem long but there’s still plenty of time.
“Rennie doesn’t have to make that decision yet – is this the guy who is going to take the team through to the next World Cup? Only James and Renz will know I guess, as that pans out into next season, whether he’s got the energy and the drive to do that.
“But for the moment I think he’s the incumbent and other guys have got to perform consistently better than him.”
Rennie told Wide World of Sports that he started his tenure last year with a big question mark hovering over 10.
“We were thinking about Matt To’omua, James O’Connor was an option but I hadn’t seen him play a lot of 10 recently,” Rennie said.
“We went in, knew that Noah was a really good kid who is confident and prepared to boss the old boys around which is an exciting trait.
“I thought James was excellent for the Reds. His ability to play on top of defences is a real strength, he’s a really good communicator, he’s got a really clear understanding of our game and I thought he played really well in the first couple of Tests.
“Obviously got injured halfway through that second Test but hung in there. When he came back he probably didn’t play as square as he had been. He’s still a leading candidate.”
Then there is Hodge, whose booming boot didn’t hit the mark in a frustrating 2020 season for the Wallabies.
The 26-year-old can play five-eighth, centre, wing and fullback – literally everywhere in the backline except halfback.
It will be interesting to see where he is used by the Rebels this season and Rennie said no requests had been made to the five Aussie Super Rugby teams regarding positions.
“We were really happy with Reece’s contribution because he hasn’t played there a lot but he’s got a far better understanding now,” Rennie said.
“If you look at his skill-set, he’s a big kicker, big body who can carry and tackle in that area. Obviously being a midfielder, fullback and winger he’s got massive utility value as well which has probably been his issue.”
As for Lolesio, Rennie is clearly a fan and the smart money would be on him to hold the reins by the time we hit the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
Rennie has a few regrets regarding his Test introduction of the Auckland-born 21-year-old, who appears to possess a steely self confidence.
“Noah, I’ll take responsibility, I probably should have put him on a couple of times late in games,” Rennie said.
“He had a tough introduction in that first Test (against the All Blacks). I thought he was really strong off the bench in Queensland, helped close the game out and he was on the bench other times where I should have put him on and he might have helped us close out the game.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in him. He’s obviously got some work-ons so it’s still an open slate. I guess the message we’re trying to get to players is that while we’ve got a much better knowledge of the playing stocks, it’s like a fresh start, a clean slate and we’re going to pick on form. Again, those players have got to earn the right through how they perform in Super Rugby to play for the Wallabies later in the year. It’s exciting.”
Mehrtens, meanwhile, is also a fan of NSW prospect Harrison, who he has done some development work with.
He says the job description for a 10 has changed markedly since his own playing days.
“I think the challenge in modern rugby is finding a guy who’s capable as a playmaker fullstop, as just a good rugby player, which you need.
“Being able to run, attack the line themselves but also having that kind of traditional view of the game. Because the 10 is still your communicative hub.
“I know the leadership on the field is shared a lot more now, rather than one or two guys calling the plays but your 10 and your 9 are still the guys and 10 is pretty much still the go to for that.
“So being able to balance out a naturally talented player and put him in a role where he’s also taking on that responsibility, that’s the challenge, to balance it out.
“Because you can get players who have really good skills and are awesome, put them at 10 and they don’t have enough of a feel or enough of an organisational mindset to excel at that role. Equally you can take a guy who is a really good organiser but doesn’t have the individual skills and you need both aspects these days.
“Part of it is throwing young guys in, a little bit sink or swim, you’ve got to adapt and control it pretty quickly. I think Will Harrison made big improvements last year.
“When he was in the Wallabies squads it sounds like he made some really big strides so I’m looking forward to seeing how he goes at the Waratahs. He’s got his captain (Jake Gordon) alongside him throwing him the ball so it’ll be good. Interesting to see how one year has developed Will’s game.
“The challenge is there for Will Harrison, Noah got his opportunity last year and it’ll be interesting now that he’s got a bit more of a name and attention on him, how he responds to that in Super Rugby AU.
“It’s up to those guys to produce the goods week in and week out.
“It’s a bit chicken and egg because the 10 is obviously a function of how the team is performing as a whole but also the 10 can drive that team performance as well.
“So it’ll be interesting to see who gets good ball and how well they use it throughout the season.”
Mehrtens doesn’t view either Hodge or To’omua as specialist 10s but believes both add plenty to a Wallabies squad.
“Reece Hodge is a really good player across the board, a really handy player to have across the squad,” Mehrtens said.
“Particularly if you’re looking at a 6-2 (forwards-backs) bench split. I don’t really see him as an out and out 10 but then again he hasn’t been put there week in, week out in that situation.
“So who’s to say if he was put in there and got the time under his belt that he might not turn into a first choice 10. To’omua I like at 12 as well.
“I know he can play at 10 but I think he has a better influence on the game at 12 than 10.
“One further out, he’s got a bit of a 10 mindset so helping his insides at 10 is really good.
“You want really good communication from your 12, I think the best 12s have always had the ability to communicate to their 10s like a 10 but still be a really good 12.
“Tim Horan is a great example – he played a couple of Tests at fly half but throughout his career, whether it was Stephen Larkham or Michael Lynagh before him, Horan was always feeding that information and helping, he was always a decision making 12. So I think Matt To’omua fills that role really well.”
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