Wallabies great Daniel Herbert believes Australia have found their centre combination for the World Cup but he is short on answers as to how they end their 33-year hoodoo at Eden Park.
Herbert was thrilled to see James O’Connor star alongside Samu Kerevi in last Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup triumph in Perth so too the Wallabies’ performance on the whole, a victory he described as their best performance since the 2015 World Cup win over hosts England.
The former Wallabies outside centre admitted he too had been caught off guard by O’Connor’s selection at 13, but was full of admiration for the way he and Kerevi complemented each other both in defence and attack.
“Initially I was a little bit circumspect, not because of James himself – I know he’d been playing some centre over at his previous club in England – but it was more the ticking clock of the Rugby World Cup,” Herbert told ESPN. “I thought there wasn’t too many more opportunities [to nail down combinations].
“He’d been given that opportunity very quickly on the back of his return and they couldn’t wait much longer as they were running out of opportunities to test him. So I was really pleased for him that he went well; I thought he did a great job and he just had a fantastic start with that offload to Hodge for that first try and that probably gave him a real shot of confidence for the rest of the game.”
O’Connor’s promotion to the starting side had come at the expense of regular outside centre Tevita Kuridrani who had failed to impress in the earlier Tests against South Africa and Argentina.
Herbert said that combination would have merit for a particular opposition, but was much happier to see a blend of talents in the Wallabies’ midfield.
“I’ve always had concerns about two big ball-running centres – I think you can do it horses-four-courses for a big physical game one-off here or there – but ongoing it always has a few issues in ball-playing,” Herbert said.
“Tevita struggled to find opportunities in the first couple of Tests and I probably thought he might have got another one, but you couldn’t fault James on the weekend.”
Herbert had an insight into O’Connor’s rollercoaster career during his time as General Manager of the Reds in 2015, when the utility back was one season into a two-year deal.
O’Connor made a shock departure from Ballymore while the Wallabies were working their way through the 2015 World Cup, an exit Herbert helped facilitate tinged with the hope that he would one day return and really deliver on the potential he always had.
“I did have a little bit to do with him at the end because he’d signed a two-year deal and he wanted to leave after one,” Herbert said. “So I met with him a few times during that time and it was clear that he wasn’t in the right headspace and it wasn’t going to do him any good to be here; he felt like he had to get away, so I dealt with him a little bit on that.
“And he handled it really well, maturely, professionally; I couldn’t really fault the way that O’Connor handled it. I guess from past indiscretions he’s always had this reputation, but I never saw that side to him.
“I never saw anything that indicated that he was anything other than a nice young fella who, for his own reasons, just needed to get away, get out of Queensland and Australia at that time, and I was always hopeful that he would come back.
“And I just don’t like it when players play the best of their career overseas, away from their family and friends the rugby public here; I’ve always thought it was best to put your best years into your home football unions and play in front of your family and friends when you’re at the peak of your powers.”
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika will name his squad for Bledisloe II on Thursday morning [AEST], the coach giving little away as to whether he will stick with the side that did the job in Perth or make a plethora of changes as he did in the corresponding match in 2015.
The Wallabies were promptly 41-13 on that occasion in Auckland, the coach coming in for a heap of criticism for seemingly thumbing his nose at an opportunity to win back the Bledisloe Cup.
Herbert was at a loss to explain how the Wallabies could snap their winless run at their Auckland graveyard, as not even his all-conquering Australia team of the late 90s and early 2000s could manage a victory at Eden Park.
“I only had one Test there … we won at Lancaster Park in 1998, Wellington in 2000 and Dunedin must have been 2001,” he said. “We had Eden Park somewhere in there and Andrew Mehrtens kicked nine penalty goals; we outscored them two tries to one but he kicked nine penalty goals and it’s hard to win a game when you give away that many points with the boot. But they haven’t lost there since 1994 against any opposition, so I don’t think anyone is really equipped to tell them how to conquer Eden Park.
“But you’d just hope to think that they [Australia] got a bit of confidence out of that game at the weekend. They’ve just got to try and take all the other aspects out of it; whether it be at Eden Park or Optus Stadium or wherever they’re playing, there [are] 15 guys on the other side and they’ve just got to get the ball and play in the same way they played on the weekend.”