O’Connor in Reds return, Hoopert earns Force debut

Murray Wenzel |

James O’Connor is set to make his long awaited season debut for the Reds against the Rebels.
James O’Connor is set to make his long awaited season debut for the Reds against the Rebels.

James O’Connor will play his first Super Rugby Pacific game for the Queensland Reds this season, named on the bench alongside Tate McDermott for a Suncorp Stadium grudge match against the Melbourne Rebels.

Wallabies halfback McDermott is back from a three-game suspension for Friday’s clash while O’Connor, off-contract beyond this year, has been held back by a pre-season hamstring complaint.

The Reds (5-5) last week won in Christchurch for the first time since 1999 without them, coach Les Kiss keen to maintain the starting halves pairing of Lawson Creighton and Kalani Thomas as a result.

It shapes as a crucial contest in the hunt for a top-four spot and home final, both sides two wins back from the fourth-placed Chiefs with four games to play.

O’Connor’s spot on the bench was freed by the call to move talented playmaker Harry McLaughlin-Phillips into the Junior Wallabies camp on the Sunshine Coast, where he’s likely to play New Zealand on Sunday.

“This is part of the whole development experience for Harry,” Kiss said.

“He’s started for the Reds, he’s come off the bench, he’s played club rugby and now he has the chance to put that experience into the under-20s.

“I’ve been in constant conversations with (coach) Nathan Grey, who has been very supportive of his development.

“Obviously, playing at the highest level is what Harry wants to do but he also sees the value of playing in this under-20s comp, as I do.”

Looking to bounce back after two losses, the sixth-placed Rebels (5-5) have retained the same pack that held their ground against the Blues, with ex-Reds prop Taniela Tupou leading the way.

Coach Kevin Foote has reshuffled his backline due to injuries with Nick Jooste getting his first start at inside centre, partnering another former Queensland player in Filipo Daugunu.

Bench hooker Alex Mafi makes it three recently-departed Reds in the Rebels’ line-up.

Harry Hoopert.
Harry Hoopert crashes over for a try during his final campaign in Reds colours. (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

Another former Ballymore talent, Harry Hoopert will play his first Super game since 2022 after recovering from multiple knee injuries to face the Fijian Drua on Saturday.

Wallabies pair Nic White and Izack Rodda will both return to the starting side, victory in Perth able to bump the Force (2-8) off the bottom of the ladder and within one win of the top-eight.

The injury-hit NSW Waratahs (2-8) have resorted to fifth-choice hooker Jay Fonokalafi to face the third-placed ACT Brumbies, while prop Pone Fa’amausili comes straight into the side while on loan from the Rebels.

The Brumbies (8-2) have named Jack Debreczini in the No.10 jersey for the first time this year while back-rower Charlie Cale also returns from injury.