MELBOURNE: Former Wallabies bad boy James O’Connor is in line for his first test in six years after signing a contract that makes him eligible for selection just days before their Rugby Championship opener against South Africa.
The utility back, awarded the last of his 44 test caps against Argentina in 2013, will return to Brisbane to his former Super Rugby club Queensland Reds in 2020 as part of a two-and-half year deal with Rugby Australia.
The inside centre, who has been released by Sale Sharks, had already linked up with Michael Cheika’s squad in Johannesburg while waiting for the deal to be finalised and was grateful for the chance to reignite his international career.
“There’s been a lot of work put in behind the scenes and a lot of guys have shown faith in me so all I’m focusing on right now is putting my best foot forward,” the 29-year-old said in a media release on Tuesday.
O’Connor’s return to the Wallabies frame has been met with a mix of wonder and alarm in Australia, with fans and media having been convinced they had seen the last of him in a gold jersey after a litany of off-field problems.
O’Connor’s last Wallabies contract was torn up after media reports that he was intoxicated and abusive toward airport staff following a test against the Pumas in Perth in 2013.
His rap-sheet up to that point was already long, including sleeping through a Wallabies photoshoot before the 2011 World Cup, engaging in a food fight and scuffling with team-mates in Paris.
He was also photographed at a fast food restaurant late at night with fellow back Kurtley Beale during the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia in 2013, causing a minor media storm that distracted the Wallabies camp.
After a two-year stint playing in Europe, O’Connor returned to Australia in 2015 in a bid to make Cheika’s squad for the World Cup in England that year but was left out after an injury-blighted season with the Reds.
He returned to French side Toulon but was soon in the headlines again, arrested by French police for cocaine possession while on a night out with former All Black Ali Williams.
On a journey
O’Connor has kept out of trouble in two seasons with the Sharks and also kept his Instagram feed busy with pictures of himself meditating.
“I have a bigger ‘why’ now and that is what fuels me. In saying that, I’m excited to be back here,” said O’Connor.
“The last time I returned, I thought I was ready to repair some of the mistakes I made but also reach my rugby potential, but it was too rushed.
“I didn’t recognise how much pain I was still in mentally, in saying that, I wouldn’t change it because I was guided to the correct mentors.
“I’ve been on a journey ever since to understanding my true self and how I’m meant to use my privileged position in rugby.”
O’Connor made his Wallabies debut in 2008 against Italy as a hugely talented 18-year-old outside back and was later starting flyhalf against the Lions.
He now feels his preferred position is inside centre, a spot that might open up for him if regular No 12 Beale shifts to fullback following the sacking of Israel Folau.
“I’m now a bit of a nugget so I fit in there quite nicely,” he said.
“But of course, I will cover anywhere in the backline – whatever the team needs … I would play prop if I had to.”