James O’Connor will start at flyhalf against the Lions. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/Getty
James O’Connor will start at flyhalf against the Lions. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/Getty

Can JOC solve Australian rugby’s Rubik’s cube?

JAMES O'Connor has made a surprise switch to flyhalf as Australian rugby continues to puzzle over his versatility like a Rubik's cube they refuse to solve.

O'Connor has been swung into the No.10 jersey by the Queensland Reds in a calculated move for Saturday night's tough clash in Johannesburg.

It means the Reds can pair O'Connor with the starchy defence of Hamish Stewart, the new inside centre, to meet the full force of the hard-running Lions.

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Isaac Lucas is still the future at flyhalf for the Reds this season but he will play a super-sub role off the bench in this Super Rugby clash.

 

For O'Connor, it means playing his third position in four months after his comeback at outside centre for the Wallabies last year and his polished play at inside centre a week ago.

Against the Brumbies, he looked at ease in the second playmaker role and making his metres by shedding the first tackler several times.

"Calm" was probably the No.1 takeaway from his game in the 27-24 loss in Canberra where Lucas, 20, was a little indecisive at times.

Does it mean that O'Connor is suddenly a new name in the chatter about who will play flyhalf or be a back-up for the Wallabies under new coach Dave Rennie?

Probably. His best position, by far, is still at inside centre but his new team-orientated aura means he is more than happy to do what's best for an inexperienced Reds backline.

Josh Nasser (L) has a handy Wallabies connection. Picture: Brendan Hertel, QRU
Josh Nasser (L) has a handy Wallabies connection. Picture: Brendan Hertel, QRU

What O'Connor needs most of all is a settled positional home, not the winger-fullback-flyhalf merry-go-round that former Wallabies boss Robbie Deans put him on.

"We've been trying both Isaac and James there (at No.10) all pre-season," said coach Brad Thorn, who gave O'Connor trial time running the backline against the NSW Waratahs.

"We just want to have a look at James and we also think Isaac can really bring something in the last 20-30 minutes.

"We're pleased with both and you'll see different roles through the season."

Wallaby lock Izack Rodda returns to the starting pack after his 30-minute comeback from injury against the Brumbies.

Alex Mafi will start at hooker. Picture: QRU/Brendan Hertel
Alex Mafi will start at hooker. Picture: QRU/Brendan Hertel

Hooker Alex Mafi will start with 2018 Wallaby Brandon Paenga-Amosa (ankle) out for up to eight weeks with ligament damage.

Rarely has any Queensland side relied on front-row back-up so raw on the bench where hooker Sean Farrell, 22, and prop Josh Nasser, 20, are new faces and prop Dane Zander, 20, has played just 30 minutes of Super Rugby.

Nasser is the son of feisty former Wallaby Brendan Nasser.

Reds: Bryce Hegarty, Jock Campbell, Jordan Petaia, Hamish Stewart, Henry Speight, James O'Connor, Tate McDermott, Harry Wilson, Liam Wright (c), Angus Scott-Young, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Izack Rodda, Taniela Tupou, Alex Mafi, JP Smith. Res: Sean Farrell, Dane Zander, Josh Nasser, Angus Blyth, Seru Uru, Moses Sorovi, Isaac Lucas, Hunter Paisami.