James O’Connor has officially become a Red after Rugby Australia and the Queensland Reds confirmed on Tuesday that the Sale Sharks player will re-join his native state for the 2020 Super Rugby season on a two-and-a-half year deal.
O’Connor last played for the Wallabies in 2013 before making the move to play in Europe. He now returns in time to be considered for Australia’s squad for the 2019 Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup campaign.
O’Connor said: “I just want to say how grateful I am to be given this opportunity again. 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.
“I have a bigger ‘why’ now and that is what fuels me. In saying that, I’m excited to be back here. Even at 29, I’m still learning and we’re really pushing each other. It’s been an intense hit the last few weeks, but I think I’m in a lot better place physically.
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“I’m a Queenslander. I was born there. I started playing rugby there. It’s where the dream began. A big part as well is that I owe Queensland the best version of myself. I came back last time and I wasn’t in the best place mentally, but also physically I was quite broken, so I couldn’t produce and perform the rugby I wanted to for the team.
“I’m finally ready to return and make amends. I want to do right by the team and the fans, and I intend to deliver the very best of my energy. If I can help the team get back to the top of the sport and if we can bring success back to Queensland, that would be a dream for me.
“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. I see now that rugby is a gift and I want my journey back to inspire possibly other young men out there who may be a little lost in the world right now. If I can make it back from adversity, then so can you.
“I think 12 is my position. I’ve been playing there the last two years and I’m most comfortable there. It’s best with the style of rugby I play and the way I have developed being overseas.
“Also, I’m now a bit of a nugget so I fit in there quite nicely. But of course, I will cover anywhere in the backline – whatever the team needs. It would simply just be an honour to put the shirt back on again. I would play prop if I had to,” continued O’Connor.
Rugby Australia director of rugby Scott Johnson said: “James has immense rugby talent. He started his career in Queensland and this is a chance for him to show his full potential for his home state. Now is the time for James’ rugby to do the talking.
“He’s come home for the right reasons to play rugby and to help develop our rugby programmes. He’s matured and understands the leadership roles both on-and-off the field. He’s been honest and transparent throughout this whole process. We want to back the man to be the player we know he can be.”
O’Connor’s commitment to a Super Rugby club and Australian Rugby allows him to be considered for selection for the Wallabies this year. He was the second youngest player to debut in the Wallabies jersey when he made his debut in 2008 against Italy in Padua.
The St Joseph’s Nudgee College product became the youngest-ever Super Rugby debutant at age 17, when he came off the bench for the Western Force against the Reds in 2008. He played four seasons with the Perth-based club and then signed a two-year deal with the Melbourne Rebels in 2012, before heading overseas to Europe in 2013.
O’Connor played 14 games with English Premiership side London Irish and then signed with French rugby powerhouse Toulon the following year. He returned to Australia with the Reds in 2015, before leaving for Europe at the season’s end with a grand total of 551 Super Rugby points across 71 career games.
O’Connor played another season of Top 14 French rugby with Toulon and then moved to the north of England with Sale. During the past two seasons in Manchester, O’Connor scored three tries in 31 matches.
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