James O’Connor’s Test career is in limbo, after the Wallabies playmaker was dumped for their Rugby Championship Tests against the Springboks.
The 32-year-old was recalled for their second Test in Argentina, but the Reds star has paid the price for their record 48-17 defeat to the Los Pumas and faces a difficult path back into the national squad.
Dave Rennie described O’Connor’s performance as “clunky” but admitted the veteran playmaker was “devastated” to miss selection.
O’Connor — the second youngest Wallaby of all time — took to Instagram to express his disappointment.
“Take a deep breath, put a hand on your heart and repeat out loud: ‘It is safe for me to welcome times of transitions with more grace. I am no longer available to internalise change as a threat to my identity.’ Deep breath.”
In his place Bernard Foley – the 32-year-old, who has spent the past three seasons playing for Kubota Spears in the Japanese League One season – has been called up as one of Dave Rennie’s three overseas picks. He joins Japanese-based stars Rory Arnold and Marika Koroibete in the squad.
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Meanwhile, Langi Gleeson, the 21-year-old young gun from the Waratahs, has been called up after impressing everyone with his dynamic and explosive work in the back-row.
His selection continues a phenomenal breakout season where the Waratahs blindside flanker has gone from Shute Shield star to World Cup bolter.
He joins Reds fullback Jock Campbell as the only other uncapped player in the squad, which has seen Rennie name debutants in his past nine Tests – a first since 1947.
Regular Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has not been included, as the Waratahs breakaway is given more time on the sidelines after leaving the squad on the eve of the Rugby Championship opener in Argentina earlier this month.
Kurtley Beale has not been included either as he returns to full health after calf and hamstring injuries, but he will join the Wallabies next week at training as Rennie attempts to work out whether the versatile back will feature throughout the rest of the home season.
Beale will also be joined at the camp by a development player, with the Wallabies coming under fire for calling up the overseas-based Foley.
Although Rennie didn’t reveal who that would be called up, either Waratahs utility back Ben Donaldson or his Waratahs teamamte Tane Edmed are likely to be given an opportunity to impress.
Rennie said his side were “embarrassed” by their record defeat and added that the trip home from Argentina was a “tough” one.
In better news, he welcomes back a number of first-choice players for the Tests against the world champions, which gets underway on August 27 at the Adelaide Oval.
Props Allan Alaalatoa (personal reasons), Angus Bell (toe) and Exeter-bound Scott Sio (shoulder) return, as do hookers Dave Porecki and Folau Fainga’a (concussion).
In the backs, Hunter Paisami (concussion) and Andrew Kellaway (hamstring) are back and will likely press for selection.
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But it is the decision to dump O’Connor which will dominate discussion.
After being left out for the Sydney decider last month after a poor return off the bench against England in Brisbane where he played out of position, O’Connor was sensationally picked ahead of Noah Lolesio for the second Test against Argentina last month. It came despite Lolesio leading the Wallabies to within just one try of a series win over England.
At the time Rennie said the selection was as much to do with adding experience and leadership to a side that has been decimated by injuries in recent months.
On Thursday, he revealed his selection was also to do with trying to ascertain where O’Connor was at as an international player.
“We were very tempted to start Noah in the second Test but we thought that we needed to find out where James was at and to give him an opportunity to play at 10,” Rennie said.
His axing is a ruthless decision, particularly given the Wallabies’ issues against Michael Cheika’s Pumas centred around the inability of the outside backs to handle the high ball than anything from the halves.
Indeed, O’Connor’s afternoon in San Juan could have played out entirely differently had his try not been overturned for an earlier illegal cleanout at the breakdown.
Nonetheless, his axing will allow Foley, the experienced playmaker who led the Wallabies to the World Cup final in 2015 before struggling in 2019, the chance to make a statement in the absence of Quade Cooper.
Lolesio is the favourite to wear the No.10 jersey against the Springboks, particularly given Foley has not played since his Japanese semi-final in late May.
“You can see sort of based on selection [of this squad] where we see Noah. He’s a strong chance to be involved next week,” Rennie said.
“He’s worked really hard on the little areas that he needed to make shifts beyond the England series.
“He’s a good kid and he’s played a lot of big rugby for a young man, just about all his Tests have been against the top four sides in the world.
“But we definitely feel he’s going to be an excellent international 10, so you’ll see him feature during this series.”
By axing O’Connor, Rennie has shown the door is wide open with the playmaking position.
He has also shown that he has a ruthless edge with his selection. It’s a long way back now for O’Connor — the once golden boy of Australian rugby.
WALLABIES’ 35-MAN SQUAD FOR SPRINGBOKS TESTS
Allan Alaalatoa (28, Brumbies, 56 Tests)
Rory Arnold (32, TBC, 30 Tests)
Angus Bell (21, NSW Waratahs, 19 Tests)
Jock Campbell (27, Queensland Reds, uncapped)
Pone Fa’amausili (25, Melbourne Rebels, 1 Test)
Folau Fainga’a (27, Brumbies, 29 Tests)
Lalakai Foketi (27, NSW Waratahs, 2 Tests)
Bernard Foley (32, Kubota Spears, 71 Tests)
Nick Frost (22, Brumbies, 4 Tests)
Langi Gleeson (21, NSW Waratahs, uncapped)
Jake Gordon (29, NSW Waratahs, 13 Tests)
Reece Hodge (27, Melbourne Rebels, 57 Tests)
Jed Holloway (29, NSW Waratahs, 2 Tests)
Len Ikitau (23, Brumbies, 17 Tests)
Andrew Kellaway (26, Melbourne Rebels, 14 Tests)
Marika Koroibete (30, Saitama Wild Knights, 47 Tests)
Rob Leota (25, Melbourne Rebels, 10 Tests)
Noah Lolesio (22, Brumbies, 12 Tests)
Lachlan Lonergan (22, Brumbies, 6 Tests)
Tate McDermott (23, Queensland Reds, 17 Tests)
Fraser McReight (23, Queensland Reds, 4 Tests)
Hunter Paisami (24, Queensland Reds, 18 Tests)
Jordan Petaia (22, Queensland Reds, 20 Tests)
Matt Philip (28, Melbourne Rebels, 24 Tests)
David Porecki (29, NSW Waratahs, 3 Tests)
Pete Samu (30, Brumbies, 24 Tests)
Scott Sio (30, Brumbies, 71 Tests)
James Slipper (33, Brumbies, 119 Tests)
Darcy Swain (25, Brumbies, 13 Tests)
Taniela Tupou (26, Queensland Reds, 42 Tests)
Rob Valetini (23, Brumbies, 23 Tests)
Suliasi Vunivalu (26, Queensland Reds, 1 Test)
Nic White (32, Brumbies, 52 Tests)
Harry Wilson (22, Queensland Reds, 11 Tests)
Tom Wright (25, Brumbies, 14 Tests)
Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup Fixtures
Wallabies 41 defeated Argentina 26, Sunday 7 August at Estadio Malvinas, Mendoza
Wallabies 17 defeated by Argentina 48, Sunday 13 August at Estadio del Bicentenario, San Juan
Wallabies v South Africa, Saturday 27 August, 3:00pm ACST at Adelaide Oval, Adelaide
Wallabies v South Africa, Saturday 3 September, 7:30pm AEST at Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Wallabies v New Zealand, Thursday 15 September, 7:45pm AEST at Marvel Stadium, Melbourne
Wallabies v New Zealand, Saturday 24 September, 5:05pm AEST at Eden Park, Auckland