James O'Connor benched for Rebels swansong
July 11, 2013
James O'Connor is looking to the future © Getty Images
James O'Connor will make his final appearance for the Melbourne Rebels from the bench in their Super Rugby round-20 fixture against the Highlanders at AAMI Park on Friday, his exclusion from the starting side coming just days after he was told he would not be offered a contract for 2014.
Rebels coach Damien Hill, also preparing for his last game with the team, said O'Connor had not trained with the team since early June, when he was selected in the Wallabies squad for the Tom Richards Cup series against the British & Irish Lions. Hill said that O'Connor had also been fighting an injury this week. "James wasn't able to train Monday and Tuesday, which gives him only the captain's run to prepare," Hill said. "He has done extremely well to make himself available on the bench. I know this is a match he is very keen to play in."
The swansong from the bench caps off a tough week for O'Connor, who played in the Wallabies team thrashed by the Lions in Sydney on Saturday before he was spotted in a Kings Cross nightclub at 5.30am on Sunday and lost his gig at the Rebels later that day. Then it emerged that Western Force, the club he left somewhat acrimoniously to join the Rebels, may be the only Australian Super Rugby franchise ready to pick him up. Rebels teammate Scott Higginbotham rubbed salt into the wounds on Tuesday when he endorsed O'Connor's departure from the club, saying "if he sorts out those off-field issues, then there is no issue with him".
The Rebels had already excused O'Connor's good friend and Wallabies team-mate Kurtley Beale from the Highlanders match that ends their season, saying he'd be better continuing his counselling for alcohol issues in Sydney, though they are keen to get him back next season.
Damien Hill was shocked by his sacking%]
Meanwhile, departing winger Cooper Vuna will return to the starting side for the match, with Welshman Gareth Delve to captain the side in his last game for the franchise. "To be a foundation Rebel and help build this club from scratch, with incredible people, has been great," Delve said.
The game also marks the final match in Rebels colours for half-back Nick Phipps, prop Nic Henderson, hooker Ged Robinson, Vuna, assistant coach John Muggleton and Hill - who will be replaced by Wallabies coaching coordinator Tony McGahan.
Rebels: Angus Roberts; Jason Woodward, Tom English, Rory Sidey, Cooper Vuna; Bryce Hegarty, Nick Phipps; Gareth Delve (captain), Scott Fuglistaller, Jarrod Saffy; Cadeyrn Neville, Hugh Pyle; Laurie Weeks, Ged Robinson, Nic Henderson. Replacements: Shota Horie, Paul Alo-Emile, Luke Jones, Jordy Reid, Nic Stirzaker, James O'Connor, Kimami Sitauti.