Three more potential All Blacks officially crossed the Tasman at the beckon of the rugby master Robbie Deans as he unveiled his Wallabies of the future.
Western Force utility James O’Connor, Reds five-eighth Quade Cooper and Waratahs prop Sekope Kepu — all with a handy dose of Kiwi — joined Zimbabwe-born Force flanker David Pocock as the four new caps in Deans’ 34-man European tour squad.
O’Connor, 18, was the bolter and could become the second-youngest Wallabies test player, after 1957 winger Brian Ford, if he gets a run against Italy, England, France or Wales in November.
He already set records this year as the youngest Super 14 debutant at 17 when coach John Mitchell picked him to play the Reds in April. He joins Deans’ Wallabies on the strength of just four Super 14 matches.
O’Connor was in the rare position of being eligible for all three Tri-Nations sides — the Wallabies through residency in Queensland; the All Blacks through his New Zealand parents and the Springboks through a South African grandparent.
His rugby pedigree is strong, with his 84-year-old grandfather Maurice O’Connor having represented Wellington.
“It was always my plan, I wanted to play for the Wallabies. It wasn’t a hard decision,” the 1.80m, 80kg O’Connor said.
Still, he was stunned to get the call while on Stradbroke Island with some mates yesterday and summoned to Sydney.
“I was just overwhelmed… (but) I think I’m ready, I’m pretty confident.”
Deans said O’Connor was “a talent”, but clearly a development project on the tour who could fill several backline positions.
Cooper, 20, was celebrating his callup after a strong season with the Reds, five years after crossing the Tasman with his parents to settle in Brisbane.
He grew up in Tokoroa and represented Waikato age-group sides but never looked back after being identified in the Australian Rugby Union’s national talent squad and touring Britain with the Australian Schoolboys in 2005.
The non-selection of Waratahs five-eighth Kurtley Beale after some injury battles gave Cooper, who was once courted by NZRU officials, a stroke of luck.
“He has the opportunity that Kurtley would have liked to have had. It’s over to him now to recognise it’s not the end, it’s just the start, and to turn it into something valuable and meaningful,” Deans said.
Sydney-born Kepu, 22, graduated from a noted New Zealand rugby nursery, Jonah Lomu’s Wesley College near Auckland.
The younger brother of former New Zealand Sevens rep Sione, the 125kg Kepu switched from No 8 to prop at the insistence of current All Blacks scrum guru Mike Cron and made the New Zealand under-21 and the wider Chiefs squad in 2006-07.
The Waratahs offered him a contract for 2008 and he took his chance to impress Deans against the Crusaders.
“I didn’t think the opportunity would come this fast and this early. It was a long-term goal for me, and 2011 was the ultimate goal,” Kepu said.
“I got the privilege to play against the Crusaders this year and that was the benchmark for me, up against the best.”
All of Deans’ Tri-Nations squad were retained for the tour, minus Europe-bound forwards Rocky Elsom and Dan Vickerman.
Wing Lote Tuqiri (knee) and five-eighth Berrick Barnes (shoulder) were both named despite recent battles with injury.