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Greg Growden
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After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.
Ruck'n Maul
James O'Connor to Saracens?
Greg Growden
July 26, 2013
The Rebels' James O'Connor directs play against the Reds, Queensland Reds v Melbourne Rebels, Super Rugby, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, June 1, 2013
James O'Connor's talks with Western Force did not go as well as had been hoped © Getty Images
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James O'Connor may be the incumbent Wallabies No.10, but Australia's Super Rugby provinces aren't pushing each other out of the way to get his signature. With the Rebels farewelling him, and the Brumbies, New South Wales Waratahs and Queensland Reds showing little interest, the assumption was that O'Connor would return to Perth. But we hear recent talks between O'Connor and Western Force officials finished well short of a hug fest, with claims he may still be owed money from the club's former sponsor, the infamous Firepower group. Our snouts in the OK Corral also tell us also there remains some animosity in Perth over O'Connor's departure from the Force several years ago. Ruck'n Maul vividly recalls several highly inflammatory conversations with Force officials after O'Connor provided them with a list of demands and then shortly after departed for Melbourne. Their opinion of O'Connor was well short of positive. Not surprisingly we now hear O'Connor is looking overseas. There are already whispers of talks with London club Saracens.

Reds, Wallabies team-mate accused of 'playing soft'

Queensland Reds went missing in their Super Rugby qualifier against the Crusaders, with numerous key players having virtually no impact on the game. Not surprisingly, according to our Reds spies, the players took the loss "very badly" and were "shell shocked". One well-known player was so upset in the losers' dressing room in Christchurch that he accused a forward of "playing soft". It will be fascinating to watch the body language if these two are, as expected, Wallabies teammates during The Rugby Championship. Adding to the ill-ease at the Reds is the fact that several key players aren't happy that Ewen McKenzie won't be their provincial coach next season.

Melbourne officials still facing potential rebellion

Not all Melbourne Rebels players were impressed by the province's handled of the Kurtley Beale saga, and it appears there is again division between certain players and the folk in head office. Management does hold sway at the moment, but the arrogant, obstructive attitude of several Rebels officials has a number of players looking at their options, and pondering whether they want to return to Melbourne. One notable backline player has made enquiries whether the Reds are interested in him. Also the Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies are unimpressed that certain Australian Rugby Union (ARU) heavies stress continually that success at the underperforming Rebels and Force provinces is a high priority. The big three don't want that to lead to preferential treatment from head office.

Changes among Waratahs coaches

Expect changes in New South Wales Waratahs' coaching staff next year. Our Moore Park moles say that assistant coach Alan Gaffney is likely to be offered a different role next season. Names bobbing up as possible back-up coaches to Michael Cheika include Nathan Grey and Brian Melrose.

Greg Growden and Russell Barwick preview the Super Rugby semi-finals

'House full' signs no longer block to promotion

Ewen McKenzie made some interesting comments this week about how he will approach the Wallabies head coaching position. Some of the most refreshing involved how he wanted to communicate with the media and supporters, McKenzie saying: "I generally front up on stuff - good, bad or whatever. We have to manage perceptions around the team, have to manage media. You mightn't get it right on the night but you can at least let people know what you are trying to do. It's important to take the confusion out. You need to have clarity with players and clarity with your fan base … I understand the media and scrutiny and the pressure. It goes with the territory.''

Such comments will delight countless rugby writers, who had grown tired of the dead-bat, overprotective approach during the Deans era, particularly in the final years. When Wallabies media gatekeepers start telling journalists there is no point promoting a Test because it's a full house, then you know it's time for a change. That change has now happened, thankfully, and hopefully the Wallabies will again bob up on television news bulletins on a regular basis; it has been a long while. Also McKenzie won't allow opposing coaches to take cheap pot shots at his team. Unlike Deans, McKenzie will retaliate.

Rumours of the Week

A notable ARU board member is set to stand down due to business pressures. It also might have something to do with his opposition to the appointment of Ewen McKenzie as Wallabies coach. It also appears that several former Test players successfully convinced wavering ARU board members they had to appoint McKenzie, ahead of Jake White, to take over from Robbie Deans. White was understandably miffed to miss out on the big job, and has made a point of expressing his "disappointment". But at ARU level there was a major concern about a public backlash if McKenzie did not get the job.

The strange ARU proposal for a curtain-raiser B-competition again looks unlikely to get past first base due to financial concerns. We also keep hearing that International Rugby Board officials were underwhelmed by the ARU management of the British & Irish Lions tour. There will be ramifications.

The appointment of Kerry Chikarovski onto the NSW Rugby Union board is expected to be followed by a big change on the Waratahs board. One of the great administrative survivors is "canvassing behind the scenes" to secure an influential position.

© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
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