Former Wallabies utility back James O’Connor could be in line for a shock re-call into the Australian national set-up just three months ahead of the World Cup in Japan.
It is believed that while head coach Michael Cheika has not spoken to O’Connor since their casual chat during the Wallabies’ end-of-year tour in 2017, new director of rugby Scott Johnson has been in contact with the 44-test playmaker and is impressed at how he has turned his playing career and personal life around.
Currently plying his trade for Premiership club Sale, O’Connor has been embroiled in many an off-field incident over the course of his 13-year professional career.
In 2013, he was released from his contract with Rugby Australia, then known as the Australian Rugby Union, after he was removed from Perth airport for a drunken incident, while more recently, he was arrested in Paris alongside former All Blacks star Ali Williams on suspicion of trying to buy cocaine in February 2017.
However, O’Connor appears to have turned his life around, having turned to meditation and, following a training camp in Iceland last year, he has spoken out about his mental health and his ambitions on representing the Wallabies at the World Cup once again.
“I now know who I was but more importantly, I now see who I must become,” he wrote on Instagram last September.
“It is time for me to share my truth. I have a deep desire to play for the Wallabies again. I have learnt from my mistakes and I am now ready. Ready to bleed green and gold. Ready to bleed for my brothers. Ready to bleed for the people.
“I will be back playing in October and I will have my eye firmly on the World Cup. I will not let myself or anyone down again. Time to shine!”
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Coming to the end of my training camp in Iceland and it has been a humbling and truly enlightening experience. I have been pushed into some very uncomfortable situations by @saviourworld through the use of sensory deprivation, heat exhaustion and deep states of meditation. My reaction to each stimulus has forced me to face myself and my darkness in a way that I have never felt before. I now know who I was but more importantly, I now see who I must become. It is time for me to share my truth. I have a deep desire to play for the Wallabies again. I have learnt from my mistakes and I am now ready. Ready to bleed green and gold. Ready to bleed for my brothers. Ready to bleed for the people. I will be back playing in October and I will have my eye firmly on the World Cup. I will not let myself or anyone down again. Time to shine! ???
Having not played internationally since the Wallabies’ 14-13 victory over Argentina in Perth in September 2013, a return to Australia could reignite O’Connor’s stagnant test career.
Currently in Queensland after spending time in Sydney last week as part of his Premiership off-season, O’Connor has just one season remaining on his three-year deal with the Sharks in England.
That would mean his contract would run out with the Manchester-based club in May 2020, which opens up the possibility of him signing with a Super Rugby club for the remainder of next year’s season between May and July.
If he were to sign with an Australian club for the latter stages of next year’s competition and the 2021 campaign, then he would become available for this year’s World Cup, despite not meeting the 60-test threshold required for overseas-based players who haven’t committed themselves to returning to Super Rugby.
Rebels pivot Matt Toomua, formerly of the Leicester Tigers, and returning Exeter Chiefs halfback Nic White have secured similar deals to make themselves eligible for national selection later this year.
O’Connor was last seen in Australian rugby in 2015, when he signed with the Queensland Reds, but after failing to make Cheika’s World Cup squad that year, he returned to Europe, where he had previously played for London Irish, and turned out for Top 14 side Toulon.
Following the Parisian drug scandal more than two years ago, he was released from the French club and joined Sale ahead of the 2017-18 season.
As the second-youngest person ever to play for the Wallabies after debuting as an 18-year-old against Italy in Padova in November 2008, O’Connor’s addition to the Wallabies would add depth not only to the national side, but also to Australia’s flailing stocks at Super Rugby level.
Able to play at first-five, in the midfield and in the outside backs, O’Connor would add plenty of versatility and experience to the squad.
Furthermore, his return to Super Rugby would help offset the departures of many Australian stars, including David Pocock, Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Samu Kerevi, Christian Leali’ifano, Nick Phipps and Sekope Kepu, all of whom will be playing overseas following the World Cup.
With the Rebels, Reds, Waratahs and Brumbies all losing established players, the presence of O’Connor could be a welcome one for any of those franchises.
O’Connor’s preferred option would be to return to Brisbane and have a second stint at the Reds, according to The Australian.
However, whether head coach Brad Thorn, who has enforced a zero-tolerance policy on controversial figures such as former squad members Cooper and Karmichael Hunt, would want someone such as O’Connor, who has a chequered past of his own, in his squad is yet to be determined.
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