“If he wants it, he has all the skills. He just needs to develop them and he could be like no other player I’ve played with,” O’Connor said on Thursday in the country Queensland town of Dalby.
“He just moves very differently. He’s so smooth. His steps are so big. He’s got long arms so he’ll palm you off and if you go low his stride length is so big. I think he’ll make a lot of us look good.”
O’Connor offered up an interesting analogy to best explain Petaia’s potential.
“I saw a photo on Instagram the other day of greyhound racing,” O’Connor said. “It’s just a photo of cheetahs in the blocks and there are all these other greyhounds that are running out of the gate. It’s like the cheetah doesn’t have to do anything because it’s almost insulted that it has to race against the greyhound, so it’s chilling there.
“Not that he [Petaia] is insulted by it, but he knows what he’s got and he knows if he does his little work and preparation to get himself to work, he backs himself.”
And if the midfield combination works a treat in the opening few rounds of Super Rugby – the Reds have three matches on the road to begin against the Brumbies, Lions and Jaguares – the pair could end up there together in a gold jersey.
“There’s no doubt where we’ll be putting our hand up,” O’Connor said.
Coach Brad Thorn is more than comfortable with O’Connor at 12 in the absence of Samu Kerevi, who will be a major loss for the Reds this season.
“I think he would consider himself a 12 and I think it probably also works with our back line,” Thorn said. “He can also play at 10. At 12 he’s a great link to the outsides and insides.”
NSW prodigy Will Harrison has been given a start at No.10, while the Reds have named up-and-comer Isaac Lucas at five-eighth, who is another highly rated player.
All eyes will be on the two rookies who teamed up for the Junior Wallabies last year.
Both sides had a training run on a heavy track in Dalby, where locals will flood in to watch the two arch-rivals get through their final hit-out before the Super Rugby season starts next weekend.
Tom Decent is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald