While he didn’t deliver the Wallabies a winning drop goal against the All Blacks, James O’Connor still earned high praise from coach Dave Rennie in his return as test five-eighth.
O’Connor wrote another chapter in the story of the former bad boy of Australian rugby as a stand-out in their 16-16 Bledisloe Cup draw in Wellington on Sunday.
The 30-year-old hadn’t worn the Wallabies No.10 jersey since 2013, in the final British and Irish Lions Test in Sydney, but was rewarded for his stellar Super Rugby AU season.
And he didn’t let Rennie down.
Playing his first Test in the halves alongside Nic White, O’Connor put the All Blacks defence on edge with his footwork and passing game.
He set up Australia’s first try with a long ball out to a flying Marika Koroibete which started their fightback from a 13-3 deficit.
And there were shades of 2011 when O’Connor stepped up in the 73rd minute to slot a penalty – at the same venue where he kicked Australia to a 11-9 World Cup quarter-final victory over the Springboks.
This time their opponents were able to level to claim the draw but it wasn’t from a lack of effort from the Wallabies.
Given the scoreline and O’Connor’s performance Rennie wasn’t able to give rising star Noah Lolesio his test debut.
“I thought Rabs (O’Connor) was excellent,” Rennie said.
“I thought he controlled the game really well.
“It would have been nice if he’d got a better ball to slot a drop goal late but I think he’s going well.”
Making his debut as an 18-year-old in 2008, the golden boy of Australian rugby went off the tracks and became more known for his exploits off the field.
But O’Connor turned his life around while playing in Europe in 2018 and has been welcomed back into the Wallabies fold.
“I’ve been really impressed with him – he’s really matured and is very comfortable in his own skin,” Rennie said.
“He understands our game and he’s driven and very disciplined and so he’s made great shifts.”
Making his return to test rugby last year O’Connor said it still felt an “honour” to be back in the gold jersey
“I’ve reflected on where I’ve come from in the last five or so years and I won’t forget what it felt like to be out and then coming back into the light,” O’Connor said.
“I vocalised it earlier in the year that I did run away from that 10 jersey after the Lions series and I feel like I did stunt my evolution as a player and a person so to be able to go out there and be my truth and play the way I was born to play, was very fulfilling.
“I’m proud of myself.”
– Melissa Woods
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