O'Connor plays down Cooper duel
May 31, 2013
Quade Cooper can prove a point against Melbourne Rebels © Getty Images
James O'Connor has recovered from injury to set up a mouth-watering Super Rugby clash with Queensland Reds playmaker Quade Cooper at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday. O'Connor hasn't played since sustaining a chest injury against the Blues in Auckland in Super Rugby round 13, missing the Rebels' rousing wins over the Stormers and New South Wales Waratahs, but he will start at No.10 in Brisbane after recovering well from a probing full-contact training session at Rebels headquarters.
Australia coach Robbie Deans preferred O'Connor to Cooper in his initial 25-man Wallabies squad to face the British & Irish Lions, citing superior defence among other reasons for the selection, but the Melbourne Rebels playmaker desperately needs more game time at five-eighth before the three-Test series.
O'Connor said, however, there was much more at stake in Brisbane than his claims on the Test playmaker jersey, with the Rebels gunning for three successive wins for the first time and the Reds are playing to keep alive their finals hopes. "I wouldn't be doing the right thing as a leader of my team if it was about me," he said. "It's not about one player. It's a team performance and if we win the game than I'll be happy with that. "If we beat them at their home stadium to get three in row, it's a massive milestone."
Reds coach Ewen McKenzie defended Cooper after the Wallabies squad selection, saying that O'Connor was "speed-humped" by Blues centre Rene Ranger in Auckland, but he said on Wednesday that he was "not too fussed" if O'Connor turned out for the Rebels. "They've been doing well in his absence so I'll be interested to see what they come up with as a combination," McKenzie said. "We'll play whoever, we don't mind. We've got some strong thoughts about how we'll need to play the game ... we'll just concentrate on what we're doing."
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McKenzie has also made no secret of his intentions to send traffic O'Connor's way, with the Queensland forwards to fully test the playmaker's injured chest. O'Connor said he welcomed any extra attention. "When you play in that 10 jersey you know that they're going to run at you anyway. The medical staff put a lot of emphasis on my fitness test, and I wouldn't put myself out there if I didn't think I could do the job."
Rebels coach Damien Hill said on Thursday: "James was desperate to play last week, however it was not in his or the club's best interest to play when the injury had not fully recovered. He has been physically tested over the past 24 hours, and has shown no signs that the injury will play a factor in his performance. Leaving the Wallabies aside, he is desperate for a win against the Reds with this group."
The battle between the five-eighths is just one of the highly anticipated duels, with former Reds star Scott Higginbotham leading the Rebels. And with Deans naming only one halfback in his 25-man squad - the Reds' Will Genia - the stakes are high for Melbourne's Nick Phipps.
Hill said that Phipps and the Brumbies' Nic White were ahead of French-based halfback Luke Burgess in the race for the remaining position up for grabs when six more players are added to the Wallabies squad early next month. "If he wins the battle against Genia then it should put him in good contention for the spot that's remaining," Hill said of Phipps. "My understanding is that it's a competition between Nic White and Nick Phipps and Robbie's using the next couple of games to get a better read on both of them."
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James O'Connor or Quade Cooper?
Hill said that young Rebels lock Hugh Pyle also had an opportunity to prove himself against Queensland's Wallabies second-row pairing James Horwill and Rob Simmons.
Melbourne winger Cooper Vuna has overcome a calf problem but hasn't been able to force himself back into their winning squad. "Lachie [Mitchell] has been doing well and so has Tommy English, and Kimami [Sitauti] has added off the bench," Hill said. "We want to see a good week's training and I will talk to him then."
Hill suggested the Rebels' recent wins had instiled confidence throughout the playing roster. "We approach every season with a squad mentality," he said.
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"Given the nature of the competition we are going to have players come in and out of the team. With many players being unavailable in recent months, it has given players like Bryce an opportunity to step up. We couldn't be more pleased with how Bryce [Hegarty] , Kimami and [Nic] Stirzaker have taken their chances. It gives every player in the team confidence in the entire squad, and I think that is an extremely positive thing for the Club."
Rebels: Jason Woodward; Tom English, Mitch Inman, Rory Sidey, Lachlan Mitchell; James O'Connor, Nick Phipps; Scott Higginbotham (captain), Scott Fuglistaller, Jarrod Saffy; Luke Jones, Hugh Pyle; Laurie Weeks, Ged Robinson, Nic Henderson. Replacements: Shota Horie, Paul Alo-Emile, Cadeyrn Neville, Gareth Delve, Nic Stirzaker, Bryce Hegarty, Kimami Sitauti.
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