Dual international who says ’86 Roos the best – Michael O’Connor

Article from the Men of League Magazine – Issue 67 – June 2017

Michael O’Connor was a richly talented centre who played with the best in both codes, and has some rare tales to tell. He says the ’86 Kangaroo tourists’ backline was the best he saw.
By Steve Ricketts.

Michael O’Connor is rated “the most scintillating centre” to play rugby union for Australia according to the official Wallabies website. But it is the 1986 Kangaroos backline he regards as the best in his time as a dual international.

O’Connor was forced to play wing to cement a spot in ’86 side, while rugby league ‘Team of the Century’ centre Mal Meninga was relegated to the bench for the second Test against Great Britain, and chosen in the second row for the third.

The Wally Lewis-captained ’86 team in England and France was rated by then ARL supremo Ken Arthurson as the best to leave this country, superior even to the 1963-’64 outfit and the Max Krilich-led 1982 Invincibles.

“That’s ridiculous, when you think about it, that Mal couldn’t get a start,” O’Connor said.

“Garry Jack, as fullback, had to keep out Gary Belcher. That shows you the quality of that side. That was the strongest backline I played in.”

O’Connor and Lewis, teammates at Test level but bitter enemies in the State of Origin arena, had first come to grips at the TG Millner Field in Sydney, battling for a position in the Australian Schoolboys rugby union side that was to tour the British Isles late in 1977.

Lewis, who was playing club league for Valleys, had enrolled at Brisbane State High to finish his schooling and was an automatic selection for Queensland Schoolboys.

“Wally was a year older than me and was built like a back-rower,” O’Connor said. “I was ACT captain and Wally was captain of Queensland. As you do in union, you shake hands before the game but Wally kept his arms by his side.

“I thought, ‘this is going to be tough’. We were both playing inside centre. I’ve never come across anybody as competitive as Wally. He wasn’t interested in any other player on the field other than me. He absolutely outplayed me. Aside from the verbals, every time I passed the ball he knocked me over. Fortunately I got a chance to redeem myself in a trial down the track.

“People often ask me the greatest player I have played against. Without hesitation I say Wally, because of that competitive streak. He had to win at all costs and he read the game so well”

At Origin level, that bitter rivalry from ’77 was still evident. But in his debut Origin match on May 28, 1985, O’Connor had the bragging rights, scoring all the points – two tries and five goals – in the Blues’ 18-2 win at a rain soaked Lang Park.

The Blues’ bus had broken down in Caxton Street on the way to the ground and Queensland supporters started rocking the vehicle and jumping up to hit the windows.

“It’s quite intimidating,” O’Connor said. “In the old Lang Park dressing rooms you could clearly hear what was going on outside, and that wasn’t good.

“I just followed Brett Kenny wherever he went that night, and he had a blinder. He was so creative.”

O’Connor went on to play another 18 Origin matches, finishing with three series wins from seven, including his debut campaign in 1985 when the Blues won the Shield for the first time.

He is best remembered for the sideline conversion of a Mark McGaw try at the Sydney Football Stadium in 1991, giving NSW a 14-12 win over Queensland and sending the series to a decider.

But the pressure of landing that goal, in the wet, was nothing compared with a kick he took in an English Challenge Cup semi-final.

O’Connor had switched to Manly from St George in 1986, and the following year scored a try and kicked five goals in the Sea Eagles’ 18-8 win over Canberra in the last grand final played at the SCG.

After playing for Australia in the 1988 World Cup final against New Zealand in Auckland, O’Connor headed for the UK to join his Manly skipper Paul ‘Fatty’ Vautin in an off-season stint with St Helens.

“St Helens are like St George, a proud club with a great history,” O’Connor said. “Mal Meninga had had great success there in ’84-85 and just about had the keys to the city. When I arrived, Fatty said to me: ‘I hope you brought your Superman cape. They’re expecting big things from you’.

“People often ask me, ‘you know that kick in ’91? It was probably the most significant thing I did, and now, living here in Queensland, people say to me, how did you feel? The pressure must have been unbelievable!

“I tell them it pales into insignificance compared with the pressure I was under at St Helens. Fatty and I were the only players on guaranteed match payments. The English guys were working during the day; training Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and playing for win bonuses.

“In the Challenge Cup, the further you go, the more you get. If we beat Widnes in the semi-finals, the players got 5,000 pounds each. A lot of money.

“On full-time against Widnes I had a 40-metre penalty to win the game, and just about every one of my teammates – and as ‘Fatty’ will tell you, none of them had any teeth – came over and reminded me of just how important this kick was.

“I’ve never been so scared in all my life. I kicked it and we went through to the final against Wigan at Wembley. That was pressure.”

O’Connor played representative union for the ACT, before moving to Brisbane in 1981 at the urging of Wallabies’ coach, Bob Templeton.

“I joined Teachers Norths, only because my good mate, (fellow Wallaby) Chris Roche painted a good picture of the club,” O’Connor said. “We struggled. When I arrived, there wasn’t a bloke in the place who had a girlfriend. There were all these boys from the bush, and all they wanted to do was get on the drink.”

O’Connor made such an impression in his two years playing for the Queensland Reds, he was named in their Team of the Century in 1999.

In five years in top level union, including 12 Tests for the Wallabies, O’Connor never had his nose broken. It was broken seven times in his first two years in league, earning him the nickname ‘Snoz’.

O’Connor believes league and union have never been more apart than now, because of tackle techniques.

“When I played league, it was still about tackling low,” he said. “In union now you have to tackle low to get the player on the ground as quick as possible, so you can turn the ball over. In league, it’s not to get the player on the ground quickly, otherwise he is going to play-the-ball. So, to slow him down, they’re taught to tackle high, to hold up, and then the third tackler in will go low.”

O’Connor and Michael Beattie were centres in the 1985 NSWRL grand final, which Canterbury won 7-6, the difference an Andrew Farrar field goal.

“We were the best side all year, and we had flogged the Bulldogs in the major semi,” O’Connor recalls. “The only match where Warren Ryan out coached Roy Masters was the grand final. We just couldn’t get out of our own half because all Canterbury did was bomb our fullback Glenn Burgess, and in those days you had to do a line drop out. That was one of the great disappointments of my career.”

O’Connor revealed that one of his reservations about switching codes in 1983 was the prospect of having to give up international travel.

As a Wallaby he had been to Argentina, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, New Zealand and Fiji. As a St George rugby league player, the only time he was assured of a trip out of Sydney, was to play against the Steelers in Wollongong or the Raiders in Canberra.

Masters offered O’Connor $40,000 to sign, and it was tempting for the then 21-year-old, given his main source of income was from bar work at Brisbane’s Paddington Hotel, while he completed university studies.

“I said to Roy, the only thing holding me back was the travel,” O’Connor said. “Roy replied that the Dragons did travel. Every year there was an end-of-season trip, and the previous year it had been to Hawaii, where they were planning to go again. That’s the thing which got me over the line.”

The trip away fund was deposited with the Nugan Hand Bank, which went belly-up. So there was no trip to Hawaii.

O’Connor formed a committee with teammate Graeme Wynn and organised a trip the following year to Rio de Janiero in Brazil.

St George made the grand final in all three grades, so all three teams travelled.

“It was a disaster,” O’Connor recalls. “A lot of the guys hadn’t been out of Sydney. We get to Rio airport and the place is like nothing you see in the brochures. You’re going through these shanty towns. All of a sudden the boys are starting to sober up after the flight, asking: ‘Snoz. What are we doing here?’

“Our tour guide told us about the high crime rate and the fact HIV was rampant. By then the boys were ready to string me up.”

During the trip, Roy Masters stumbled across Ronnie Biggs, the ‘Great Train Robber’ who was on the run from justice, after fleeing Britain and then Australia.

Masters told Biggs the Dragons were an Aussie Rules side from Melbourne, where Biggs had two sons who were playing the game.

“He was very disappointed when he found out we were from Sydney,” O’Connor said. “He was about as disappointed as (St George prop) Craig Young, because he was an ex-copper. ‘Youngy’ just kept on saying, ‘This bloke’s just a f….criminal.’

“At the end of the lunch, Ronnie asked if anyone was going to Melbourne? Silly me. I put my hand up, because I was going to the Melbourne Cup. He said: ‘Would you mind taking this package back?’ Me and a couple of mates went to the Dandenongs, where Ronnie’s wife lived, had a cup of tea with her and delivered the package.”

O’Connor and his wife Susan live on the Sunshine Coast and he is employed by the Australian Rugby union in a selection and development role for the Sevens program. He was Sevens coach for six years but when the program moved to Sydney he opted to remain in Queensland.

The 1986 Australian backline O’Connor rates the best in his time, was: Halves: Peter Sterling, Wally Lewis; centres, Gene Miles, Brett Kenny; wingers, Michael O’Connor, Dale Shearer; fullback, Garry Jack.

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