SYDNEY: When a teenage James O’Connor nervelessly kicked a sideline conversion to give Australia that rarest of rugby experiences, a win over the All Blacks, in 2010 it seemed only injury could prevent him from enjoying a 100-cap Test career.
But while the stocky body with its explosive pace and lightning sidestep has remained intact, the off-field antics of the self-styled “Brand James O’Connor” have seen him exiled from international rugby for more than a year and counting.
The Queensland Reds on Friday brought him back from Europe and offered the 24-year-old what must be a last chance in Australian rugby, desperate times calling for desperate measures in Brisbane after a miserable 2014 Super Rugby season. The Australian Rugby Union (ARU), who tore up his contract last September after O’Connor was escorted by police out of Perth Airport after a drunken row, gave his return a cautious welcome.
“We are pleased James has made the decision to return to rugby in Australia,” ARU chief Bill Pulver said in a news release.
“He is a player who has a huge amount of potential on the field and I’m sure he’s excited about the opportunity being presented to him by the Queensland Reds.”
That Pulver’s comment was tagged on at the bottom of a statement welcoming rugby league/Australian rules convert and O’Connor’s soon-to-be team mate Karmichael Hunt to the 15-man code spoke volumes about where O’Connor’s stock now stands.
On the face of it, Australia can ill-afford to ignore a talent like O’Connor’s as they seek to bridge the gap with New Zealand that was so ruthlessly exposed in the 51-20 defeat by the All Blacks in Auckland last weekend.
Ewen McKenzie has shown through his actions since he took over as Wallabies coach, however, that nothing is more important than the “culture” of his squad and he will be taking no gambles on O’Connor without seeing evidence of a big change in attitude.
That will have to be illustrated at the Reds, where O’Connor will be coached by another man who knows all about how much talent he has, and how his attitude can cause problems, after their time together at the Western Force.
“I think people mature and develop at different ages and I sense having spoken to him that he is aspirational,” Richard Graham said after the announcement ceremony in Brisbane on Friday.
“I’ve got a lot of history with James ... I think people need to judge him by his actions when he comes here, it’s easy to pre-judge him.”
Last year’s Perth incident was just the culmination of a string of disciplinary problems going back to when he slept in and missed the Wallabies team announcement for the 2011 World Cup.
But his friend and former team-mate Kurtley Beale has shown O’Connor that there is a path to redemption after he was stood down by the Super Rugby outfit when he punched two team mates in South Africa last year.