The clock is ticking on James O’Connor’s hopes of leading the Wallabies around Suncorp Stadium against the French on July 7.
O’Connor injured his groin a fortnight ago at training and has still not recovered completely yet.
It’s a frustrating setback because after working alongside Dave Alred — the man who helped elevate Jonny Wilkinson to the summit of the rugby world — O’Connor felt ready to command the No.10 jersey for the Wallabies.
“I’d credit a big part of my game, my development to Dave,” O’Connor tells foxsports.com.au.
“His ability to breakdown a skill and rebuild it is second to none.
“It’s allowed me to have a lot more time in my game.
“He’s just taught me to play a bit calmer, so I can still play at the line hard, fast and sharp, but also be able to flow back, sit back in the pock, get the ball to space, scan the field a bit better and on top of that the kicking. I feel great goal-kicking now.
“I don’t feel like I’m going to miss just because of the structure he’s put in. There’s no head-noise coming through.”
A glimpse at O’Connor’s Instagram account reveals exactly the training methods Alred has the Wallabies playmaker practising daily.
For the first time too, Alred has been invited into the Wallabies’ training camp on the Gold Coast to work with all the backs.
The Wallabies had an internal opposed training session on Wednesday night and O’Connor was limited in what he could do.
The sight of seeing halfback Jake Gordon run around, as well as the newly arrived Matt To’omua, would have eased some fears for Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, who has already seen Nic White and Scott Sio ruled out of the series because of injuries at camp.
But O’Connor’s niggly groin threatens to see him miss the first Test against France.
“My goal is still the first Test, but like with everything it’s a step up,” O’Connor said,
“Test footy, you’ve got to be on. You can play Super Rugby injured, but Test footy you need to be fine.
“There’s protocols we’ll be going through.
“It’s not a matter of me saying, ‘I’m right’.
“There’s actually numbers you have to hit.
“There’s a squeeze test I’m doing, there’s a strength test, I’ve got to hit metres per second.”
O’Connor hurt his hamstring as he burst through a hole at training.
In an ironic twist of fate, the 30-year-old hit a personal best shortly before pulling up lame.
O’Connor’s absence would be a blow for Rennie’s Wallabies, who desperately want to start their Test season well after just one victory from six matches in his first season in charge.
Without the experienced playmaker last year against the All Blacks in Sydney, the Wallabies delivered their worst performance of the year as they were smashed 43-5 in the absence of O’Connor and To’omua.
The Wallabies have two options should O’Connor be ruled out.
Brumbies playmaker Noah Lolesio was the man wearing the No.10 jersey on that disappointing night in October last year at the Olympic Stadium and is the future.
In what could be a subtle clue of Rennie’s mindset around selection, Lolesio is sharing a room with Reds centre Hunter Paisami, who will start in the midfield against the French.
Rennie could also return to Reece Hodge, who led the Wallabies to victory over the All Blacks a week after the Sydney bloodbath but is not considered a long-term option.
Hodge, however, has not played a match since April and while Director of Rugby Scott Johnson believes he is a good backup, his lack of game-time, particularly alongside a halves partner he has not played with, would be a risk.
Adding to the intrigue around selection, exacerbated by the injury concerns lingering over O’Connor, To’omua and Gordon, Rennie likes to name his Test team six days’ out from a match to allow his team to work on their combinations and understand their roles.
It’s for that reason O’Connor could be left out.
“We’re going to know in the next couple of days because we’ve got to announce the team and get the combinations working,” O’Connor said.
“I’m healing well.
“It’s just down to the timing of it.”
The sight of seeing Gordon return from a MCL injury could see the Waratahs captain rushed back to start.
But O’Connor backed his Reds teammate Tate McDermott to excel if he was given his run-on debut after finding his voice within the squad.
“In my mind, he’s ready,” O’Connor said of McDermott, who could come under pressure for a starting jersey from Ryan Lonergan if Gordon is not match fit.
“What I’ve noticed is he’s stepping forward and offering his opinion more.
“At the Reds last year he was one of our most vocal guys but in the Wallabies group he was just finding his feet; now he’s starting to really take ownership and getting his voice heard and what he needs.
“I think that’s a great sign that he’s ready.”
Despite the gruelling long training sessions, O’Connor said the camp was exactly what was needed to turn the Wallabies into winners.
“We all recognise if we want to do what we’ve been speaking about doing and get back to the top of international rugby, we need to change something and that comes from our skill-set under fatigue,” he said.
“The only way to do that is to test your skill-set under fatigue.
“We’ve been doing up to five sessions a day. It’s what we needed but it was definitely a shock to the system.”