Rugby - Deans happy to take a punt on O'Connor at fly-half

Robbie Deans is firmly of the opinion that a British and Irish Lions Test is no place to blood unproven players and his Wallabies squad reflects that belief in all but the position traditionally considered rugby's most important - fly-half.

Reuters

Three uncapped players were included in the preliminary party announced on Sunday for the three tests in June and July but most of remaining 22 named were hardened veterans of international rugby.

James O'Connor is one of them with 37 internationals already under his belt and it was the 22-year-old that Deans revealed was his first choice to start in the number 10 shirt in the first test in Brisbane on June 22.

"We think he caters for our needs," Deans argued. "He wasn't available for us at any stage last year, but the last time he played for us at 10, against Wales at the end of 2011, he did a very good job.

"He's just got the components that we're looking for. He's clearly a bloke that traumatises defences, he keeps the attack very square, which provides opportunities for the channels around him."

Despite being a hugely talented player with a proven big match temperament, however, O'Connor has started at flyhalf for Australia just once and only recently took up the role with his Super Rugby side the Melbourne Rebels.

To some extent, Deans's hand has been forced by Kurtley Beale's off-field problems, the string of injuries that have bedevilled Berrick Barnes and his concerns over the defensive frailties of Quade Cooper.

"None of our five-eighths have had consistent time at international level for the last couple of years and that's been an element of frustration for us," Deans added.

"The great thing is we've got a number who are capable of doing it at that level, it's just a matter of deciding which one will serve the team's needs best.

"And in the first instance, James has got that opportunity."

A precocious talent, O'Connor made his test debut as an 18-year-old against Italy in late 2008, becoming the second youngest player to play for the Wallabies.

Playing initially on the wing, he firmly established himself as a big-game player when he scored a try after the siren and then cooly converted it from the touchline as the Wallabies beat the All Blacks 26-24 in Hong Kong in 2010.

Another clutch kick, this time a 71st-minute penalty, gave Australia an 11-9 victory over the Springboks in the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals.

ANGLED PASSES

A prodigious kicker and thrilling runner with the ball, O'Connor plays a straighter game at flyhalf half than Cooper, taking the ball up to the line and then dispatching runners through fissures in the defence with short, angled passes.

Most importantly considering the bulk of most of the Lions backs and loose forwards heading to Australia, O'Connor has good upper body strength and will not flinch from defending the line when the red shirts come charging at him.

Deans needs no convincing of the virtues of Australia's traditional running game but has continually reiterated the importance of being able to handle what the Lions throw at the Wallabies too.

"The game is such in this day and age that you cannot be one-dimensional and hope to succeed," he said.

"We're going to have to threaten the width of the ground and make good decisions in the game.

"The Lions will bring a lot of pressure to bear, try and squeeze us at our end. They'll play territorially, they'll try and bring the referee into the game.

"(We'll play with) ball in hand, but there are times we'll have to put ball to foot if that's the prudent thing to do."

Deans will name a final 31-strong squad on June 11 and strongly indicated that the remaining Super Rugby matches are an opportunity for players to press their claims.

Barnes, a fine tactician, has returned in good form at just the right time to make the squad, while the mercurial Cooper was served notice that the Queensland Reds match against the Lions on June 8 will be his audition for a place in the final squad.

Beale, another richly talented player, could also yet emerge from his personal problems and stake a claim for the number 10 shirt but at the moment it is O'Connor's to lose.

Deans, though, knows that his job is effectively on the line in the Lions series and the New Zealander can be ruthless with players, however talented, he feels has let him down.

Asked whether it was time for O'Connor to step up and firmly establish himself as the orchestrator of Australia's backline, Deans did not waste words.

"Has to be," he said.

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