Injury to James O’Connor has put a spanner in the Queensland Reds’ plans to take down their New Zealand rivals and threatens to derail the playmaker’s home Test campaign for a second-straight year.
Last season’s domestic champions will begin the trans-Tasman component of Super Rugby Pacific action at Melbourne’s Super Round against the Wellington-based Hurricanes (4-4) on Saturday.
But the Reds (7-1) will do it without their in-form five-eighth, who could miss the rest of the regular season with a knee injury.
O’Connor’s lateral collateral ligament was injured while kicking late in the last-round defeat of the Rebels when his straightened leg was collected by an attempted charge down.
Fullback Jordan Petaia will also miss Saturday’s clash with a low-grade hamstring strain suffered in a slip on the AAMI Park turf, but is expected to be fit to face the Chiefs next weekend.
O’Connor doesn’t require surgery but could still be out for the season, the four-to-six week recovery leaving him in doubt for the final round against the Crusaders on May 27 before the knockout finals series.
The Wallabies then face England in a three-Test series in July, O’Connor keen to feature after a groin issue ensured he was a spectator for Australia’s home Tests last year.
His Rugby Championship absence paved the way for Quade Cooper’s memorable Wallabies return from Japanese rugby.
More immediate though is the impact O’Connor’s absence will have on an improved Reds side determined to improve a terrible record against New Zealand rivals.
The Reds have won just two of their last 22 games against New Zealand teams while the Hurricanes have won 15 of their last 17 games against the Reds and 19 of their last 21 against Australian opponents.
Jock Campbell (hand) returns from injury to replace Petaia while Lawson Creighton will wear the No.10 and Suliasi Vunivalu will play his second game of the season on the wing.
“We’re going to need to bring more than fight,” Reds halfback Tate McDermott said of his side, who have lost just once despite playing inconsistently this year.
“James was in some really good form there; he’ll be a big loss from the experience side of it.
“But it’s a shot for Lawson and I’m proud of how far he’s come.”
O’Connor’s injury also opens the door for Brumbies playmaker Noah Lolesio to make his case for Test minutes, the No.10 set to return from an ankle injury to face the Dunedin-based Highlanders on Sunday.
Nic White will captain the side with Allan Alaalatoa (neck) a “week to week” proposition, according to coach Dan McKellar, while Tom Banks (facial injury) should be available next week.
Will Harrison will play fullback for the NSW Waratahs against the Hamilton-based Chiefs on Friday, shifting Alex Newsome to the wing and Dylan Pietsch to the bench.
Ben Donaldson (calf) is also back from injury, named on the bench behind No.10 Tane Edmed.
“We’re hoping his presence will push both himself and Tane to a higher level and it will be interesting to see how that selection battle plays out over the next few weeks,” coach Darren Coleman said.
Moana Pasifika will have a fourth game postponed after COVID-19 left the Western Force with no other option but to delay their Friday night clash.