James O’Connor was blessed with the speed and step to evade Brad Thorn when they were Bledisloe and World Cup rivals.
But there was no escape for the supposedly repentant 29-year-old when he fronted the now Queensland Reds coach in a bid to cement another return home, and possible Rugby World Cup campaign in Japan.
Thorn, the craggy dual international, had to be convinced O’Connor’s desire to make amends at Queensland was genuine before a two-year contract was confirmed.
The former All Black lock had already jettisoned Karmichael Hunt and James Slipper – two key players blighted by cocaine issues – while Quade Cooper also headed south after Thorn deemed the maverick playmaker did not fit his cultural revolution.
So Thorn faced some obvious questions at Ballymore on Wednesday when he justified O’Connor’s recruitment two years after the utility back was arrested for cocaine possession in Paris.
“It was an interesting one …” Thorn confessed.
“I’d never met James outside playing against him.
“I knew he was a good footballer but perhaps I hadn’t heard the best reports in the past.”
After the pair met for coffee, O’Connor, who had a frustrating season-long homecoming in 2015, was then grilled by Thorn’s fellow coaches and the Queensland board.
“We talked about footy, we talked about life and probably the thing that impressed me the most was he didn’t shy away from hard questions,” Thorn said.
“We were pretty direct and there was no shuffling or anything. When you see a guy front, talk through things and look you in the eye it’s a positive thing.”
O’Connor admitted he was neither physically or mentally capable during his last sojourn at the Reds, a move designed to culminate in a Wallabies recall for the 2015 World Cup.
The 44-Test veteran then returned to Europe, where he was exemplary during a two-year stint with Sale in England, according to coach Steve Diam ond.
“His leadership with the footy stuff and mentoring some of the young guys was good to hear,” Thorn said.
“I think he’s learnt some hard lessons and if he can come to a place with that sort of stuff it can be a real strength in impacting on others.
“It seems the last two years have been a turning point for James.”
Thorn conceded the acquisition of O’Connor, who is with the Wallabies in Johannesburg ahead of the Rugby Championship opener on Sunday (AEST), given the exile of Slipper and Hunt was a reasonable talking point.
“It sort of painted me as a hard liner. You know, someone does something wrong: ‘Boom, gone.’
“I’m pleased where they landed and pleased they’re going well,” he said.
“I guess this is another opportunity for James. We all like a redemption story.”
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