Plenty to treasure but O’Connor can’t save Pirates

Photo: SPA Images

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It may have ended in defeat, but James O’Connor’s first foray into Sydney club rugby last Saturday provided plenty of moments to treasure, with two tries, an assist and plenty of hard yakka.

West Harbour were ultimately outgunned 44-33 by Warringah in a points bonanza at Concord Oval. But it was O’Connor that was the main attraction, the Wallaby utility back making good on his promise to turn out for the Pirates when the planets aligned.

Despite the loss, the 23-year-old was all smiles afterwards as he looked back on an enjoyable clubland experience.

“It was good fun and everything I expected,” he beamed. “It was good to get back to grassroots, good to meet all the boys and be a part of it, and have fun playing rugby again. I thought we’d done enough to win it but congratulations to the Rats boys, they played well.”

Fun may be the operative word here as O’Connor seeks to rediscover his mojo away from the spotlight, and reignite a career that is at something of a crossroads. Though he may divide opinion at times, there is no doubting his natural attacking flair when afforded the requisite time and space, and there was plenty of evidence on show against Warringah as he slotted fairly seamlessly in to the inside centre position as a part of one of the Shute Shield’s most entertaining and expansive backlines.

“They play a good free-flowing style of rugby, and I’d love to see a team go out and do it better than these guys because once they get a sniff and get some front foot ball, they’re really hard to stop and it’s very enjoyable to play,” O’Connor enthused. “The boys just want to have a crack and support each other, and they take a lot of confidence from their running lines, so there’s a really positive atmosphere here.”

In what was his first full game of club rugby since 2011, he got off to an impressive start, using a nice decoy run from his fullback to skip his way to the chalk on 15 minutes, before slicing through the line with ease 10 minutes later to profit from another creative surge from his fellow Pirates.

O'Connor, James runs 030813D-4041.jpg

O’Connor put in a positive showing on his Shute Shield debut – Photo: SPA Images

A healthy crowd at Concord Oval was still a world away from the 84,000 baying for, and against, O’Connor in the final test against the British & Irish Lions a month ago. But as most players will tell you, it’s often harder to play in front of a few thousand than it is a wall of sound. You can hear all the insults at club level.

“I was lucky I played at home and the guys created a chance for me early so I didn’t cop too much,” he laughed. “There was a good vibe and everyone who comes to club rugby loves rugby and wants to support it, and that’s what I wanted to get back to. I loved it and I’ve embraced it.”

His coach at Wests, Matt Briggs, was naturally disappointed by the result – “We’ve gone back to bad habits again” he bemoaned. But was effusive in his praise of his star recruit, both on and off the field.

“He turned up with a great attitude, he was super committed, and he wants to play again, and that’d be just fantastic,” said Briggs. “In a losing side he was very, very good. He scored two, set up one, and worked his backside off, and his professionalism is a good example of what we need to do as a team if we’re serious about taking the next step.

“He wants to get involved with the culture of the club and get to know the boys a bit better,” he continued. “He stayed around afterwards to watch the Super Rugby final with his new team-mates, and even put on some beers for the night. He put some money behind the bar and is putting some more in for the juniors next week.”

Briggs is adamant O’Connor’s best position is at 12, the jersey he donned on the day. But trying to pin the man himself down as to where his future lies on a rugby pitch – if at all – proved as difficult as it was for the Warringah defence to bring him down in full flight.

“I was a little bit rusty at inside centre but we made it work – I think we did anyway!” he offered. “We’ll leave all that talk to other people, I just play rugby and enjoy it.”

WARRINGAH 44 (Michael Adams, Edward Doyle, Josh Holmes, Mark Porpiglia, Sam Ward tries; Dave Harvey 5 cons, 3 pens) defeated WEST HARBOUR 33 (James O’Connor 2, Tito Mua, David Osofua, Shaun Treweek tries; Jack Debreczeni 4 cons) at Concord Oval. Referee James Leckie

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First published by Rugby News on: August 7th, 2013

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