Meet the New Bloods: Rory O’Connor

Photo: AJF Photography

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Every year a new batch of graduates takes the step up from club land to Super Rugby to achieve their dream of a professional career. But while they are usually well known amongst the grassroots fraternity that has keenly followed their progress from schools and rep footy, they arrive at the next level as largely unheralded potential. So in the first of a new series of Behind the Ruck in-depth interviews, we look at the rugby journey of NSW Waratahs prop Rory O’Connor – one of the New Bloods!

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Running out onto the SCG field against the Crusaders in a pivotal Super Rugby clash, and with the game still very much in the balance at 15-7, would be a daunting enough proposition for most players in what was only their fifth appearance. But doing so at blindside flanker when you’re contracted as a prop, brings a whole other level of anxiety into play.

But for Rory O’Connor, it was just a question of backing himself and sticking to the process. After all, it wasn’t the first time he’d found himself in the loose forwards.

“I played 7 when I was younger and a bit at no.8 as well, so I had a fair idea of what the role entails,” he revealed to Behind the Ruck. “I know how to give good pressure to the props, and a fair idea of where to stand at the lineout to be a bit of a decoy. Rob Simmons is a pretty smart caller and he very quickly found a way to put me somewhere where it would seem like I was doing something, so they used me by not using me!

“‘Crono’ [assistant coach Simon Cron] said it doesn’t matter where you go, you just do your role and do your job. So if you get the call you’ve just got to go and execute, and if I have to be a world class 6 then I’ll have to go on and do my best!”

Rory O'Connor_Manly Roos_2009

Carving up for the Manly Roos in 2009 – Photo Supplied

That he most certainly did. Born and raised on the northern beaches, 24-year-old O’Connor’s future sporting pathway was virtually decreed by his bloodline, with both parents originally hailing from the Munster-mad territory of Waterford, south east Ireland.

Educated at St Augustines, he took some of his first steps in the code with the Manly Roos and then Manly’s Colts sides, where he had a couple of young team mates who would also go onto bigger things.

“I played under 15’s for the Roos at 7 or 8, and when Reece Hodge couldn’t play I’d play 10 and Lalakai Foketi was the 12,” he explains. “‘Hodgey’ broke his ankle in our Colts grand final, and only played one year of Shute Shield before being signed by Melbourne.”

After flushing out his attacking instincts and growing into his body, he dabbled at tighthead for a while before settling on the loosehead side of the scrum. And he was all set to continue his progress with the Marlins before fate came calling, and an unpopular move due north offered him the chance he was ready to grab with both hands.

“I only played one week in lower grade at Manly when I got a call from Greg Marr, who was the head coach of Warringah Rats,” he recalls. “He said there was a spot available in 1st Grade, and I jumped at the opportunity and made my debut against Norths in Round 2, 2015.”

Rory O'Connor_Waratah Shield_2011

Winning the Waratah Shield with St Augustines 1st XV in 2011 – Photo Supplied

His reputation soon burgeoned to the point where he got to the pull on the national jersey as part of an Australian U20s side that also contained Allan Ala’alatoa and Sean McMahon, while he also spent an off-season in his ancestral birthplace trying to shoehorn himself into Munster’s hotly contested Academy.

But after bedding down and cementing a starting spot in the Shute Shield over the next 18 months, his performances in the scrum, and athleticism and ball handling around the park, soon caught the eye of the talent-spotters at the next level domestically, and he found himself invited down to the Rebels to join his old friend ‘Hodgey’ on an initial eight week injury cover contract in April 2017.

He trained with the Rebels squad without getting any game time, but still came back to run out for the Rats every couple of weeks. But when he returned to Warringah for the rest of the 2017 Shute Shield season, they were embarking on a dream run to the finals under head coach Darren Coleman, and eventually a grand final where they memorably defeated the reigning Premiers Northern Suburbs to lift the club’s maiden Sydney Premiership.

For a player like O’Connor who was eager to learn and improve, it wasn’t just a season that ended with silverware, it was a period in which he grew as a front rower under the tutelage of two coaches in Coleman and forwards coach Damien Cummins, that suited his inquisitive mind.

“We were really trying to build towards something across the season in 2017 and that’s what probably led to us performing so well in the grand final,” he recalls. “DC [Coleman] was good to play under. He’s obviously a very detailed coach and I think that really helped all the aspects of my game, and we were also reviewing scrums properly and trying to improve week-to-week. That’s not always the case in club rugby, people don’t always put a magnifying glass over what they’re doing, and they don’t tend to improve over the year as a result.

“Turtle [Cummins] made a good impact there because he was working on the front rows and had a really good knowledge of what was going on. He was coach of Manly before and they always had a strong pack, and he also brings a good mindset to the physicality that a forward pack needs. He was aware of everything that goes on at scrum time and at lineouts too, he was really good.”

Rory O'Connor_Rising v Rays_2017_Kw

Playing for Melbourne Rising against his old side the Sydney Rays in the 2017 NRC – Photo: Karen Watson

He headed back to Victoria again later that year to represent the Melbourne Rising in the NRC, and following an entire pre-season with the Rebels in 2018 he was on the verge of signing an EPS contract. That is until the drawn-out saga of the enforced removal of one of Australia’s Super Rugby teams put a giant spanner in the works.

“They’d promised me an EPS contract, but then when the Western Force saga played out, that all went out the window,” he explains ruefully. “Dave Wessels then came in as the new coach and obviously, he gets to say who comes in, and some of the guys including me were moved on to be replaced by players from the axed Force team. It was a bit ugly to be honest.”

Having a whiff of the next level without ever getting the chance to taste it must have been hugely frustrating. But it also acted as motivation for O’Connor to prove a few people wrong. Looking back now, he reckons it may have all worked out for the best.

“I’d also done a pre-season at the Tahs just before the Rebels opportunity came up, and after experiencing both I felt that I could fit into that environment, and that I was ready to try and kick-on,” he recalls.

“I didn’t feel like I was quite ready for Super Rugby but I was willing to give it a crack. But in hindsight, it was probably a good thing that it didn’t happen for me at that time. I got another year of rugby under my belt, put a bit of weight on, got stronger and more experienced.”

He spent that year back with the Rats as they made a decent fist of defending their title in 2018, going all the way to another grand final before being torn asunder by a young, dynamic and well-drilled Sydney University side. But on the day, a scrum that had been a weapon the year before was now a pale shadow of it’s former self, shorn of some key figures and ruthlessly targeted by a dominant Students pack. It wasn’t an afternoon to remember for Warringah’s Front Row Union.

“Unfortunately last year, we didn’t really have the personnel to back it up,” O’Connor shrugs. “Uni knew that we didn’t have as experienced a tighthead, so they targeted that and that would bring everything else undone. We also didn’t have some of our backrowers on board, Maclean Jones was out, and some of the guys who did play were carrying injuries, like Luke Holmes who played through it until half-time. People were just kind of hanging on by the end of the season.”

Shute Shield 2019

Packing down for the Rats – Photo: Karen Watson

But despite the team’s disappointment, his individual star was once again on the rise when he was sounded out about a potential opportunity with the Waratahs. However, once bitten, twice shy, which meant were no problems keeping a lid on any excitement, as he was resigned to the fact that nothing would probably eventuate.

“The Tahs told me in June that they were looking for spots, but I wasn’t expecting anything at all really, because when you spend two years counting on something and it doesn’t happen, you kind of stop counting on anything else,” he admits. “So I just kept my head down in club rugby not really expecting anything. When they told me they were offering me a contract, it was just great news.

“I still have the jersey I wore for NSW Schools hanging up in my room, so even though I was happy to take anything anywhere else if it was offered, I was really proud when it turned out to be the Waratahs. We have this ‘tall poppy syndrome’ problem in Australia at times which I think makes people afraid to just say ‘This is what I want to do’ for fear of being ridiculed for it. But I’m more than happy to say that to play for my state was what I wanted for a very long time, that was my goal, and here I am.”

With Paddy Ryan finishing up his NSW career and Wallaby Tom Robertson out with a long-term knee injury, the door was left open for the next cab off the rank to drive in and make the most of their opportunity.

Harry Johnson-Holmes has grabbed that mantle with both horns to seemingly lock down the starting loosehead jersey for the time being. But after finally taking his Super Rugby bow in the last quarter against the Hurricanes in round one, O’Connor has been an ever-present on the bench ever since, getting game time in all eight of the Waratahs matches thus far.

“It’s been really good,” he enthuses. “I guess I wouldn’t have expected to play all the games this year, and it’s been great just to test myself at the speed of Super Rugby. You obviously see a different level of athlete compared to club rugby, but if you do your role consistently well and execute under the higher pressure the competition brings, there’s no reason why you can’t do well. You see guys like Reece Hodge who played just a year of Shute Shield after his ankle injury but did his job well, then did it well in Super Rugby and ended up in the Wallabies.”

What has been an interesting comparison for O’Connor to experience, particularly as a prop, is what you can and can’t get away with under the intense spotlight of Super Rugby as opposed to club rugby.

“A lot of the processes you deal with in the Shute Shield don’t differ, but it’s the expected levels of execution and the pressure you’re under that are different. Also, the stakes are that much higher, so in club rugby you can make a mistake and maybe get away with it, but in Super Rugby you make a mistake and it often ends in a try and that could be the game.

Waratahs

Enjoying pre-season training with the Waratahs – Photo: Karen Watson

“Strangely, I think scrummaging in the Shute Shield is harder because players tend to cheat more than in Super Rugby, and players that come back to club rugby after Super Rugby have a hard time because they’re not used to having to deal with some of the tricks of the trade that some props have.

“At Super Rugby level everyone is quite honest and square, because everyone is looking at you, and you also have the weight of the back five to stay square. Sometimes in club games you have an uneven back five, so you have to have a few tricks up your sleeve to get dominance. Also, club refs are probably not held to the same standards that a Super Rugby ref is. At every single scrum the decision matters.”

What has been a real boon for a bona fide scrum anorak, is that access to all the available data and technology that comes with being part of a professional set-up again. He’s more than happy to use whatever is available for either himself or his coaches to scrutinise his technique with a fine tooth-comb. It’s all about the desire to constantly improve.

“It comes down to camera footage. In Super Rugby you have four, five or six cameras capturing the scrum, and with the technological advancements, you can slow-mo everything and look at it in detail. So the coaches can look at every angle and every prop at anytime, whereas in club rugby you might only have one camera, and then you can’t see one prop for half the game. 

“I like to be able to look at everything and see everything that way. Sometimes what you think you did is actually different to how you actually did it, and by dissecting that you get the most out of yourself and you do improve. You don’t get that level of attention to detail in club rugby, so you don’t improve as much or as exponentially.”

A driving force behind that constant self-assessment and desire to get better is most definitely Waratahs assistant coach Simon Cron, who looks after the forwards and the set-piece. Hewn from the Canterbury rugby gene pool, Cron is a no-nonsense leader with exacting standards, an unbridled winning mentality, and a passion for the sport that is infectious. Hence O’Connor’s enthusiasm.

“He’s great to work with because he drives really high standards,” he says. “He’s always going on about aiming to be the best ever player in your position, or that the Tahs have ever seen, or the world has ever seen. That sounds like a pretty big goal, but at least if you’re on that pathway you’re aspiring to improve, and it’s good for your mindset as a player. Every day you’re trying your best to minimise a poor training session or a mistake, so you’re creating this culture of success.

“If you can’t master something you can’t keep practicing the outcome of it, you have to practice the minor details that add up to why you’re not mastering it. If you can’t punch-pass, you need to practice how to punch-pass, and the fact Crono did all this at Shute Shield level and won a comp shows how successful it is. He was probably coaching a Super Rugby level at Shute Shield level, and that’s why Norths were so successful. Three years in a row they’ve been in the top four and that’s no fluke because they carried on with the same systems, even after he left.

“In club rugby you only have an hour or two on a Tuesday or Thursday to nut out the scrum. But you have the hours available in Super Rugby to sort out all those minor details that make a difference, such as the connections between the front row and second row and their binds and so on. There’s also more of an emphasis on the pack working as an eight, and Crono has this ‘load and expload’ technique where the pack hits and accelerates. A lot of kiwi teams do that, and you couldn’t possibly do that without the whole eight working together.”

It’s also quite handy to be packing down against a veteran of over 100 Wallaby tests in Sekope Kepu every day at training, a sturdier challenge than most available on game day across the competition. But as they say, train hard, play easy.

“Most of the time I’m on the reserve side in training so I’m going up against Keps, and it means that every scrum session is full-on. If you switch off or coast along in auto-pilot you’ll get found out, so you’ve always got to be up for it and competing hard every session, every day. That’s probably been the best thing for my development this year because it encourages consistency and strength, because he is a very strong scrummager.

“I remember talking to Michael Ala’alatoa a while back, and I was asking him what he thought the Crusaders training was like. He said it was actually harder and more competitive than the games, and that’s why they’re so well-prepared. So if you’re scrummaging against Keps every week and he’s world class, that prepares you and gives you confidence on game day to back what you’ve been doing all week. I’ve really been enjoying learning off all the other guys, watching them go about their business and how they approach things. It’s great to be in a professional environment and absorb all that information.”

Waratahs

Firing off a pass against the Crusaders – from blindside flanker! – Photo: Karen Watson

For all the positive talk and intentions off the field, the bread and butter of your professional existence are the results, and so far this season there is only word to sum up the Waratahs – inconsistent.

They haven’t attained any great heights, but they haven’t exactly stunk the place out either, and four wins and four losses is a pretty accurate reflection of the performances they have produced thus far. There have been plenty of positive periods of play that indicate an exciting future just around the corner, mirrored by just as many where they have struggled to find clarity or the execution needed to get them over the line. But O’Connor takes the glass half-full approach.

“From a win-loss perspective, I guess if you look across the games it would seem that we have been inconsistent,” he says. “But if you look at the scorelines, the margins are very small. Against the Hurricanes we lost by a point, and had a kick to win it at the end, and there were penalties here and there in other games that could have made a difference, so they were all tight contests.

“After the loss to the Blues the other week, some of the team leaders were talking about how it’s only slight errors that are causing us to chase our tails in a lot of these games. It’s not like we need to go back to the drawing board and redesign everything and redevelop the systems. Our defence has been really good, we haven’t been leaking huge scorelines, and our set-piece has been really good – the lineout exceptional.

“What I think it comes down to is that decision-making in those crunch moments, and whether your skill execution is top-notch under that pressure. Those little moments make the difference and turn narrow wins into narrow losses, and that’s what we’ve got to get better at. Also, the nature of rugby is that it’s simple but complex at the same time in some parts, and that takes time to get right when you have an influx of new players, new voices and new ideas.”

At half-time last Saturday night at the SCG, the Waratahs’ season was hanging in the balance. They trailed the Rebels 20-7, and a bonus-point win for the visitor’s would have left NSW trailing by 12pts on the all-important Aussie conference ladder to their Victorian rivals. But an improved second half showing off the back of a smarter and better-executed game plan turned the contest around, and they snatched a hugely significant 23-20 victory from the jaws of defeat.

“The chat at half-time was no different to any other we’ve had this year. The captain calmly demanded we put the first half behind us and listen intently to what the coaches had to say. We focused on winning the mental battle and finishing each stanza of play on our terms, which was evident in the Rebels’ frustration at crucial moments.

“After the Blues game the team spoke about the reality of the schedule that lay ahead of we were to make a genuine claim for the title. The key had to be consistency and aiming to win all those games in the trademark style that we had agreed to live by in the pre-season. This meant being a team who used their defence as a weapon and played the game on our terms. I think the second half last week against the Rebels showed what playing by our terms meant.”

Next up are the Sharks, whose visit to the brand new Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta this evening kickstarts a three-week long series of clashes against South African sides, with the Waratahs heading to the Republic tomorrow for meetings with both the Bulls and Lions on their home soil. They then return to an interstate derby against the Reds in Brisbane, so to say that the next month will go a long way towards dictating whether the team are contenders or pretenders this season, is no understatement.

“The Sharks definitely have a reputation for being a big team who like to make an impact with physicality,” says O’Connor. “At our new home ground at Bankwest Stadium, it’s really important for our identity as Waratahs to make it an arena of unrelenting pressure and ruthlessness. I think the contact zone will define this game, and that’ll set up how the other South African teams perceive and review us upon our visit there.

“We’re very keen to roll on and take on the challenge, and we’re all pulling together for the same goal. It’s a very tight-knit group, everyone is very closely bonded and they’re ready to go.”

It may have taken him a while to get the opportunity, but it sounds very much like this New Blood is intent on sticking around. Go well Rory.

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