James O'Connor of the Reds during the Super Rugby match between the Queensland Reds and the Sharks. Pic: Darren England.
James O'Connor of the Reds during the Super Rugby match between the Queensland Reds and the Sharks. Pic: Darren England.

Exiled star takes first steps in Wallabies rebirth

Enigmatic Australian rugby star James O'Connor is emerging as the unlikeliest hero in a doomed World Cup campaign, but the playmaker is making key moves to revive his Wallabies career.

O'Connor has not played a Test in Wallabies' colours since September, 2013.

His mere appearance on Wednesday morning is a quantum leap back from oblivion in terms of the Wallabies.

At the most basic level, it was a joy to see him running at full pace and throwing a sharp pinpoint pass in a catch-and-pass drill at Wests rugby club.

James O'Connor hasn’t played for the Wallabies in nearly six years. Picture: Getty
James O'Connor hasn’t played for the Wallabies in nearly six years. Picture: Getty

Rugby Australia director of Rugby Scott Johnson has been the architect of signing the one-time bad boy for two years after exhaustive research that he had changed his ways at English club Sale Sharks for past two seasons.

At 28, O'Connor will be a huge asset for the Queensland Reds to help fill the void at inside centre next year when Samu Kerevi is off to Japan.

O'Connor joined the squad in Brisbane on Tuesday night and bowled up enthusiastically with the Wallabies Wednesday.

The Wallabies fly out for South Africa on Sunday for a camp before the July 20 Test against the Springboks in Johannesburg.

James O'Connor (L) will fill the gap left by the departing Samu Kerevi at Brisbane. Pic Annette Dew
James O'Connor (L) will fill the gap left by the departing Samu Kerevi at Brisbane. Pic Annette Dew

There's no way he can be parachuted into that squad because it would be a poor signal to those who have slogged through the Super Rugby season.

More likely he will train in Brisbane and rejoin the squad when they return for the July 27 Test against Argentina at Suncorp Stadium.

The big takeaway is that he is in World Cup contention and he has the background of 44 Tests to bring to the table.

Nothing would have been possible without positive moves from Rugby Australia, the Reds needing a top inside centre desperately, O'Connor's own eagerness and crossed fingers that his enfant terrible days are gone for good.

He made a strong impression with English club Sale Sharks in 18 appearances in the recent season when he made inside centre home for his footwork, skills and stout defence.

James O'Connor has earned 44 caps for the Wallabies, since debuting at the age of 18. Picture: Darren England.
James O'Connor has earned 44 caps for the Wallabies, since debuting at the age of 18. Picture: Darren England.

As importantly, Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond told England's RugbyPass website that O'Connor had been a model citizen off the field for two seasons.

"James has been brilliant from day one. I told him if he didn't overstep then everything would be great and we never had a bad word," Diamond said.

"Whoever gets him is getting a little pearl."

Just as halfback Nic White has been brought home from English club Exeter, the 44-Test O'Connor has been judged an asset by the new Michael Cheika-Scott Johnson partnership at the helm of the Wallabies.

Will Genia (R) has approved of James O'Connor’s return to the national team.
Will Genia (R) has approved of James O'Connor’s return to the national team.

O'Connor's 2011 World Cup teammate Will Genia has given the move a thumbs up.

"What people tend to do is typecast him as the arrogant kid who did this and that and judgment is clouded on who he might be now as a person," Genia said.

"While he was young he got away with a lot because of pure talent but at the point where he was judged disruptive to the team, it was decided he was not wanted.

"If the research is done and he has matured, as the indications are, why wouldn't you bring back someone as good as he is whether it's into the Reds or the Wallabies' set-up."

"There are Wallabies leaving (to play overseas) post-World Cup so even in that context it's good to have such players around for next year."



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