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How James O'Connor went from Australian rugby's bad boy to captaining the Reds to a record-breaking win

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Brad Thorn reckons James O’Connor’s redemption story is nearing completion after the reformed rugby bad boy led the Queensland Reds to a record defeat of the NSW Waratahs in his first game as captain.


Chosen to replace injured skipper Liam Wright, the five-eighth was dominant in a 41-7 win to open the Super Rugby AU season at Suncorp Stadium on Friday.

He was perfect off the boot with five conversions and two penalties, while he set up expansive play with short and long passing and drilled the 50-22 kick that led to another try that iced the contest.

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Dan McKellar and Allan Alaalatoa after win over Western Force | Super Rugby AU
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Dan McKellar and Allan Alaalatoa after win over Western Force | Super Rugby AU

O’Connor became the youngest-ever Super Rugby debutant at age 17 and the second-youngest Wallaby in Australian rugby history at age 18, but twice he left for European stints as off-field drug and alcohol-related trouble followed him.

Now 30, the Gold Coast product returned to the national and state set-up last season determined to make the most of his third chance.

Renowned disciplinarian Thorn, who is in his fourth year in charge, has seen enough on and off the field to declare O’Connor has flipped his own narrative.

“James’ story, to captain his state, is really cool and I know it means a lot to him and I’m really proud of him,” Thorn said.


“I’m not sure if James remembers, but when he first came in we had that chat around the narrative around him.

“We all love a redemption story and he’s done that and most importantly he’s done it through his actions.

“I’m very proud for him, his family and it’s a really cool thing to captain his state, it’s a good story to have.”

Ominously, the Reds were also missing suspended Wallabies lock Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, injured Australian hooker Brandon Paenga-Amoso and high-profile NRL recruit Suliasi Vunivalu, who was stood down for one game after an altercation with a security guard at a Brisbane pub.


Facing pressure from emerging Waratahs No.10 Will Harrison and Brumbies equivalent Noah Lolesio this season, O’Connor hinted there was room for improvement despite their slick start.

“It was a good start to the year but wasn’t at clinical as we can be,” he said.

“It could have blown out and got a lot sloppier than it did … but we did exactly what we said we would.”


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