An intelligent, athletic performance from Leicester Tigers' England-qualified openside Brendon O'Connor caught the eye on Friday evening.
Leicester Tigers gave an emphatic statement on Friday night with their 33-20 European Champions Cup defeat of Stade Francais at Welford Road. And an assertion of intent was uttered with a New Zealand accent.
Attacking with pace and ambition in an unmistakable two-wave structure, the hosts displayed all the hallmarks of new head coach Aaron Mauger.
Perennially underrated Matt Smith was excellent at inside centre, marrying an unfussy but effective passing game with pure tenacity. Close-season signings Mike Williams and Lachlan McCaffrey brought muscle and industry. Brendon O’Connor made his club debut too.
In 15 Super 15 outings for a struggling Blues outfit earlier this year, he had accumulated 148 tackles, 104 carries and 15 turnovers. The 26 year-old went toe-to-toe with all-action Ardie Savea in last month’s ITM Championship final, helping his side Hawke’s Bay to a thrilling 26-25 win over Wellington. Via a grandmother, O’Connor also qualifies for England.
After Friday’s match, Richard Cockerill branded talk of a Test role “premature”. For now, that may be true. Even so, charged with succeeding Julian Salvi in a line of superb Leicester opensides, O’Connor delivered an outstanding performance to begin life as a Tiger. Here is a run-down of his contributions.
Testing the water
O’Connor proved an utter nuisance at the tackle area from the first kick-off. Follow him here as Morne Steyn fields from Owen Williams:
Typically combative, Tom Youngs rushes up to execute the first hit. On the shoulder of his hooker, O’Connor challenges for the ball.
He is shunted away by the combined clear-out of Patrick Sio and Meyer Bosman but, as the slideshow below demonstrates, he bounces out into the defensive line:
This trend, of returning to his feet and getting back into the game quickly, continues throughout O’Connor’s showing.
During the World Cup, Australia‘s trio of Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper and David Pocock were lauded for disrupting opposition breakdowns. Just as important to the Wallabies’ results though, was fast ruck-speed – recycling possession rapidly.
Here, following up as Mike Williams carries strongly, O’Connor darts over the ball to allow Ben Youngs a pristine platform:
A few phases later, Mat Tait finds himself caught in a far weaker position. The full-back is shackled behind the gain-line and seems to be isolated from any support.
Thankfully for Tigers, O’Connor is on hand to help out:
Bypassing the front line of runners, Owen Williams hits Tait in behind:
The Stade defence reads the pattern well. However, O’Connor adjusts his angle as Tait beats the first defender…
…and latches on, almost sling-shotting his teammate through contact…
…before straddling the ball, shielding it from any counter-ruckers to ensure Leicester can remain on the attack:
Cockerill spoke to the BT Sport commentators midway through the first half and suggested O’Connor was feeling his way into the game. In truth, his subtle interventions just kept coming throughout his 65-minute shift.
Moving it away
Top 14 champions Stade had decent field position from this lineout, but Pascal Pape spilled at the tail.
Following a slick pick-up from Dan Cole, O’Connor’s unselfish transfer to Owen Williams allows a key decision-maker some space:
Seemingly innocuous, the short pass sums up the flanker’s entire showing – unselfish and under the radar, yet essential to the side’s success.
Felling 13 runners, O’Connor was the top tackler in the game alongside Stade centre Bosman. An afore-mentioned habit of rebounding off the floor certainly aided that tally.
As Sergio Parisse surges off this early scrum, the openside scurries across to scythe down the Italy legend:
Crucially, he is on his feet in the guard position before Stade scrum-half Julien Dupuy can move the ball away:
This means O’Connor is free to contribute from the next phase:
The step-by-step diagrams below show how Stade establish a mini maul and lock Paul Gabrillagues breaks away. As Mike Williams tackles him high, looking to wrap up the ball, O’Connor goes low.
The ex-Blue then stands up before the ruck has formed, adopting the space in behind the tackle and obstructing Sio, who is looking to resource the ruck.
This gives Mike Williams a window to clasp onto ball unchallenged. Though Dupuy taps O’Connor in frustration and urges referee John Lacey to award a penalty to his team, the Irish official instead pings Gabrillagues for holding onto the ball on the floor:
Mike Williams forced a similar infringement as Stade pressed five minutes later, swooping to capitalise on a good counter-ruck from Owen Williams:
The former Worcester Warrior would probably have been strong enough to secure the turnover on his own, but a shunt from O’Connor certainly adds ballast:
Before the first quarter had elapsed, Leicester’s latest number seven offered another glimpse of what he will bring.
Defensive decision-making and spoiling
Tries for Julien Tomas and Paul Williams featured fine offloading and underlined Stade’s ability to score from long range. Indeed, they truly stretched Tigers at times.
Without O’Connor’s efforts on this occasion, the Parisians might have plundered another five-pointer:
The first thing to note is the decision to jam onto ball-carrier Gabrillagues. Given there were seven more Stade players to the left and only Peter Betham opposite them, O’Connor nullifies a glaring overlap with a ball-and-all tackle:
Once more, he rolls towards the opposition posts and rises, Once more, Sio is the obstructed Stade player in support:
As Sio drives through, O’Connor sticks out a leg and forces the ball loose:
In plain view of referee Lacey, this is a cynical infringement that buys Leicester time to reorganise their defence. Its subtlety ensured that O’Connor escaped unpunished. Such intelligence also punctuated Tigers’ attack.
Last week, Cockerill highlighted O’Connor’s ability to ‘link’; to ensure continuity on the back of shrewd support play. Anticipation is a fundamental quality in all of this, and one first-half lineout emphasised as much:
As Ben Youngs finds Smith to set up a midfield move, watch O’Connor:
While Smith passes to Owen Williams behind Betham, he heads infield in front of the ball, moving to where he expects the play to end up:
The calculated gamble is vindicated when Owen Williams makes a half-break…
…and O’Connor is on hand to receive an offload on the inside:
This understanding is all the more impressive given O’Connor’s lack of game-time alongside his new colleagues. And there was another piece of cooperation to a turnover on the half-hour mark.
Despite spending the majority of the opening period defending, Stade found themselves 8-0 ahead. A penalty handed them territory and there was a chance to build more pressure. Then O’Connor pounced:
After handing off Cole and Tom Youngs, Sylvain Nicolas is cut down:
Before the Stade support arrives, O’Connor does not have to adhere to ruck regulations. He blocks Nicolas’ attempt to pass backwards…
…deflecting the ball upwards where Tom Youngs can complete the turnover:
A similar play got Leicester off the mark.
One of Richie McCaw‘s defining traits over 148 All Blacks appearances has been how he has challenged the way referees interpret the ruck area.
After this O’Connor turnover…
…which led to a try for Vereniki Goneva…
…BT pundit Brian O’Driscoll queried the legality of O’Connor’s actions. He argued, by this law definition, that a ruck had been formed prior to him scooping the ball off the deck:
It is certainly close. From this angle, we can see Smith engaging with Stade hooker Laurent Panis as O’Connor is bending to pick up the ball.
Another vantage point shows O’Connor’s steal to occur almost simultaneously to the ruck forming:
Referee Lacey is forced into a decision and sides with Leicester. O’Connor pushes the envelope and pulls off a try-scoring, streetwise pilfer.
More link work
Popping up in midfield from an overthrown Stade lineout, O’Connor exhibits his handling skills and comfort with ball in hand with a simple take-and give:
Receiving a pass from Owen Williams…
…he straightens to draw Parisse before putting the effervescent Smith into space:
After half-time, O’Connor became even more conspicuous.
Try on Tigers debut
Being in the right place at the right time is rarely coincidental in rugby. Opportunism and work-rate is a healthy combination, and O’Connor profited from both seconds into the second half:
As Ben Youngs kicks, O’Connor is stationed on the fringe of the ruck:
Even so, he makes up the ground to capitalise on the confusion caused by Adam Thompstone and Mike Fitzgerald. His pick-up at pace is exquisite:
O’Connor was on hand from the next restart to keep Leicester in the ascendancy, intercepting a kick that did not go the required 10 metres and driving up beyond halfway:
Around 10 minutes later, nimble footwork and deceptive power force a penalty from Stade following this O’Connor carry:
Ben Youngs would tap, go and seal Leicester’s bonus point, something that could prove vital in the final shake-up of a pool that also includes Munster.
The ensuing restart offered a final image of O’Connor’s perpetual motion.
Already involved in four turnovers by this point, O’Connor made it five here:
The most striking thing about this sequence is O’Connor’s energy. He begins on the 10-metre line…
…and back-pedals to lift Barrow:
O’Connor then slips to the right of the breakdown to shield Ben Youngs from any potential charge-downs:
Clearance made, he tears towards Hugo Bonneval. Tom Youngs makes a tackle on the Stade full-back and O’Connor is over the ball…
…and fights hard to stay on his feet and provide a target for Marcos Ayerza to latch on and drive through:
When the ball emerges, it is on the Tigers side:
Cockerill’s note of caution on O’Connor’s international prospects was totally understandable. Earning the respect of everyone at Welford Road – fans, players and back-room staff – has to be the primary priority.
But this was more than merely a promising beginning. It was a classy performance from a clever player dripping in qualities that England need, namely influential breakdown nous.
Matt Kvesic and Will Fraser have been touted to challenge Chris Robshaw for a post-World Cup berth at openside. More of the same from O’Connor and he will join that category of genuine contenders.
Thank you to BT Sport for the match footage.