Wednesday’s Rugby News confirms James O’Connor’s return, two key re-signings for Super Rugby clubs, Berne’s challenge to the Wallabies backs and the arch enemy name their squad for the Rugby Championship.
After weeks of speculation, James O’Connor is set to return to Australian Rugby, with the outside back expected to be named in the Wallabies squad to South Africa over the next 48 hours.
O’Connor is set to become eligible for Wallaby selection once again after signing a long-term deal to the Queensland Reds, with the contract expected to last at least three years.
Plans for a return was hatched over two months ago when Australian men sevens coach Tim Walsh and former Wallaby Stephen Holies pitched his comeback to Australian rugby to coincide with the 2020 Olympics.
Walsh was essential in formulating the plans for his comeback, which would see O’Connor attempt to make the World Cup squad followed by playing and training with the sevens squad by December.
“We were looking for ball-players who can play centre,” Walsh said. “He’s got a fantastic defence, his speed is world-class, his kicking game speaks for itself and the age and experience he can add to the squad – there’s real value there.”
“I was very sceptical at the start but in the three months that we’ve been talking, I’ve observed that he is very self-aware, very mature, and has taken real accountability of the past, who he is and who he was. I’ve certainly been impressed.”
O’Connor’s desire to return enticed coach Michael Cheika and Scott Johnson to sound out his former coaches regarding his character, with Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond confirming that he has grown up since his departure.
“James would be first to say he didn’t handle fame and fortune in the best way, but he is now 28 years old and a more accomplished player with silky skills and a brilliant ability to assist with line breaks and hits,” Diamond said. “Whoever gets him is getting a little pearl.”
This convinced the selectors to welcome O’Connor back to the Wallaby frame, with Cheika making it known that he was open to his return if he was willing to sign with an Australian Super Rugby team.
This has set in motion his return to Queensland, who were eager to replace captain Samy Kerevi and outside back Duncan Paiu’aua, who is set to depart to Suntory and Toulon respectively.
Bill and Sim’s excellent re-signing
The Rebels and Waratahs have reinforced their squads for 2020, re-signing core players Billy Meakes and Rob Simmons respectively.
Meakes has been signed on a one-year extension, having been with the Rebels since the start of 2018 after the axing of the Western Force.
He was one of the standouts for the Rebels this year having played in all 16 regular-season games, recording a career-high in tries (5) which cemented his position in the number 12 jersey.
Meakes was thrilled at the prospect of remaining in Melbourne for another year, full of praise for the playing group and the support that he has received from the Rebels fans.
“I’m very excited to re-sign with the Rebels for the 2020 season,” Meakes said. “While 2019 ended in a very disappointing way, I feel that this current group can achieve success if we are committed to getting better and working hard every day.”
“The support that I have received from the Rebels fans over the past two seasons has been second to none and I can’t wait to continue my journey here in Melbourne.”
Simmons re-signs with the Waratahs for a further two years, having rejected lucrative offers from overseas clubs in Europe and Japan.
The second-rower has become an essential part of the Waratahs forward pack since 2017, with his re-signing largely down to how well his family has settled after his move from the Reds.
“I suppose both my family and myself have been enjoying our time down there and I thought why leave somewhere we’re enjoying?” he said. “We did, we had a look and I had some offers but our biggest decision was around that enjoyment.”
Simmons was excited about the changes that were underfoot at the Waratahs, with the 94-capped Wallaby looking forward to passing on his wisdom and knowledge to the younger players set to come through.
“I’d like to be able to pass on some of my experience to younger guys and let them learn off me and stick around and have some good depth around the club,” Simmons said.
“There’s a genuine interest in trying to improve themselves and use any resources they have available to them and experienced players and some good coaches and a genuine drive for everyone to try and get better is something that really excited me and yet another reason for me to stick around and everyone buying into that common goal.”
Berne down the door
New Wallabies backs coach Shaun Berne has challenged the Wallaby’s backs to stand out and “pick themselves” as they get set to start their Rugby Championship campaign.
Berne has refuted any responsibility or input regarding the selection of players, stating that his main role in the squad is to get players to play well-enough football that they will pick themselves.
“I am not sure how that will play out. There are obviously selectors and I am not a selector. In terms of the group, my job is to get them playing the best footy they can play and if they’re doing that, they’ll pick themselves,” Berne said.
“There’s quite a few options there. Although Israel Folau is a loss to any team, as statistics will prove, it is an opportunity for other guys and they’re all highly talented.”
Berne comes through the Michael Cheika/Eddie Jones school of coaching excellence, having played rugby at Randwick and NSW before securing a lucrative coaching gig in Australia after a short stint overseas.
His role as attacking coach will only last a few months before re-joining the Rebels after the tournament, with his main priority being to help players gel in their limited time that they have together.
“I hope to try to help the players be successful,” Berne said. “I can see there is so much talent in the room, they don’t need someone to come in and tell them how to play the game. There is a lot of experience and rugby IP in the room, my job is to help facilitate that and bring that out and to get them to play together.”
His work in the role so far has impressed halfback Will Genia, who has praised the impact that he has already had on the group on-field.
“He’s very good at facilitating the way we want to play the game,” Berne said. “He understands how we try and play the game and the little tweaks and changes and things like that.”
“He’s very good in terms of his on-field coaching, getting guys to understand why they’re doing things, getting guys better at doing things and he’s very good at communicating all that sort of stuff. So I think it’s been really enjoyable having him in here and he’s had a really big impact on the group already.”
All Blacks TRC squad named
The All Blacks have named four new players in their 39-man squad for the Rugby Championship.
The new faces include Crusaders backs Sevu Reece and Braydon Ennor, Chiefs loose forward Luke Jacobson and Highlanders fly-half Josh Ioane.
The All Blacks have named the extended squad with the plan to rest the majority of their Crusaders contingency for their opening test against Argentina on July 21.
Two Crusaders players that have already been excluded are Lock Scott Barrett and Ryan Crotty, who have been ruled out of Saturday’s Grand Final against the Jaguares along with the majority of the Rugby Championship.
Barrett is expected to miss 6-8 weeks, whilst Crotty’s injury is more severe, leaving the centre racing the clock to be fit for the start of the World Cup.
They are joined on the sideline by Tim Perry, Damian McKenzie and Liam Squire, who have all had a hampered and disrupted 2019 as a result of injuries.
Other notable exclusions from the extended squad were Squire’s Highlanders teammate Waisake Naholo, along with the immortal Ma’a Nonu, who has somehow been overlooked for offload merchant Sonny Bill Williams.
Coach Steve Hansen was excited but ready to take on the challenge that lays ahead of the squad.
“We’re going to try and do something that’s never been done before and that’s to win three Rugby World Cups in a row. However, that’s not a given. We’re going to have to be hungry for success and we’re going to have to work incredibly hard and smart to achieve this,” he said.
The squad is as followed: Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Liam Coltman, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Joe Moody, Atu Moli, Angus Ta’avao, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Samuel Whitelock, Jackson Hemopo, Sam Cane, Vaea Fifita, Shannon Frizell, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii, Kieran Read (Captain), Ardie Savea, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Brad Weber, Beauden Barrett, Josh Ioane, Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Braydon Ennor, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Rieko Ioane, Sevu Reece, Ben Smith.