‘We’ve moved to a more mental realm’: JOC reveals the change from Thorn to Kiss – and his 2024 ambitions
James O’Connor recognises he’s no guarantee to feature in the Queensland Reds’ matchday 23. But, for now, that doesn’t bother him.
For the first time in a long time O’Connor, the veteran Wallabies back who made his Super Rugby debut way back in 2008, believes he can see progress at the Reds after the arrival of Les Kiss to add layers to the foundations put in place by Brad Thorn.
“I haven’t been coached like this in a long time,” O’Connor told The Roar.
“What Brad did was embed a deep winning feeling, not an underdog culture but we would fight. He instilled a lot of good values into the guys in terms of work rate and started the model that we’re working on.
“But it’s like everything, to grow you must evolve. We’ve nutted that physical element down with Brad and now we’ve moved to a more mental realm. We’re working bloody hard, but it’s a more detailed approach to rugby.
“Rugby’s a simple game but you’ve got to add layers and know when to pull back to the blindside, when to play on top of teams, when to kick and when to pull the trigger, and one thing I’m enjoying here is we can get the ball to space and as a ball player, it’s very enjoyable.”
O’Connor, 33, doesn’t hide behind the fact that 2023 was a frustrating year.
Not only was it the first year in four seasons he didn’t represent the Wallabies, but niggling injuries and the Reds’ issues up front in the forwards meant it was tough going for O’Connor and rookie playmaker Tom Lynagh to play on top of oppositions.
“It was tough playing 10 at the start of the year because we had no structure,” O’Connor said.
“Towards the end of the year, I feel we built some good combinations and put some good games together and got to the pointy end of the season and it was a reflection of where we’re at. We knocked the Chiefs off and we got pretty close in that final, but we weren’t a top-four team last year.
“We weren’t quite there last year but that’s what we’re building on now.”
Who Kiss turns to first up in 2024 to lead the Reds around the park will be fascinating.
Unlike in the northern hemisphere’s various competitions, coaches can’t ease their way into the Super Rugby sprint with a strong start essential.
It means Kiss, who has returned to Super Rugby for the first time since 2008, will have to make a judgement call on backing either the experience of O’Connor, the unfulfilled potential of Lawson Creighton, or youngsters Lynagh or Harry McLaughlin-Phillips.
O’Connor, who signed a one-year extension to stay at the Reds that leaves open the possibility of a second to take him through next year’s Lions series, doesn’t quite know what role he will play but said he was content with where his journey had led him.
“Part of being here now is to develop the young guys and bring them through,” he said.
“As long as I feel I’m the best and compete I’ll keep putting my name in the ring.
“All four of us bring different elements to the game; some are better at kicking, some are better at controlling the game and some have better running games, so depending on what combination we want to go, it might change weekly. I might be wearing the 10 or 12 jersey or the 22 jersey coming off the bench to close the game out or I’m just helping the team prepare. Obviously, I want to start but I won’t be distraught if I’m not.
“Lawson’s probably our best communicator, he’s a big body, he’s physical; Harry takes the ball to the line, he’s got great instincts and he’s quick; then you’ve got Tom who is also very quick, but he’s got a masterful kicking game and he really feels and sees space well, so there’s good competition.”
As for O’Connor’s international ambitions, the 64-Test back says his number one goal is helping the Reds find their feet and get back to winning ways after several inconsistent years played a part in Thorn moving on.
“It’s funny, it changes quite a bit,” said O’Connor, who was a surprise inclusion in Eddie Jones’ camp to Arnhem Land before playing for Australia A and the Barbarians in Europe and Great Britain.
“Last year no and then it was again [on my mind].
“This year I’ve reflected on it. First and foremost we need to win here for me to even think about that next stuff, which is as far from my mind as possible.
“My main job right now is I want to make that 15 and I want us to win as many games as possible and play an enjoyable style of rugby because that was one thing I felt last year is we missed a lot of opportunities and we let ourselves down in attack.
“It’s not as if teams were beating us, we were beating ourselves and that’s something we’ve worked really hard on as a group.”