Re-signed and re-born, James O’Connor looms as the key man for Australian rugby’s “litmus test” against the Crusaders on Saturday night.
Another bumper crowd is expected at Suncorp Stadium, 10 years on from the Reds’ famous 2011 Super Rugby title against the relentless red and black machine.
They haven’t beaten them since – and Australia is winless after seven games of the new trans-Tasman tournament heading into Saturday’s triple header.
The Waratahs have been written off in the first game against the Blues at Eden Park but the Brumbies will fancy their chances of upsetting the Chiefs in Hamilton.
And then the main course between the champions of Australia and New Zealand, in what former Crusaders star Andrew Mehrtens described as a “real litmus test” for the rebuilding Aussie game.
O’Connor, who scored the game-winning try in the Super Rugby AU grand final and was voted the MVP of that tournament, has been cleared to start at five-eighth after passing his HIA tests this week.
The Reds co-captain was forced from the field in the round loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin.
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O’Connor enticed by New Zealand ending
“Queensland is my home,” O’Connor said after re-signing with the Reds and Rugby Australia through to the 2023 World Cup.
“I was born here. I love this state, I love pulling on the maroon jersey, and this is where I want to finish my career.
“We have a great team now and I think we are going to do some special things. I’m excited to be part of it and to help take them forward…”
The head to head battle with Crusaders star Richie Mo’unga is just one of many mouthwatering matchups.
“Physically I’m getting stronger and the results are saying that,” O’Connor said at a function on Friday.
“I’m still learning – I only started playing 10 in the last year and half, so I’m still a student of the game so that is the goal, the World Cup.
“When I get to that point I’ll be as much of a complete player as I can be.”
“I’m very grateful and excited for what’s to come.
“It’s the first time I’ve actually been part of a team – these are my brothers, my country, my state. Why would I want to go anywhere else, because it is just the beginning.”