Michael Cheika’s Wallabies team to face Argentina this weekend is littered with players that have spent a very long time away from international rugby.
Sports writers Iain Peyton and Reg Roberts shared the stats on Twitter that O’Connor returns after 2,140 days (almost six years), Jones returns after 1,701 days (over four-and-a-half years) and Leali’ifano returns after 1,125 days (over three years). Meanwhile, James Slipper and Nic White returned last week against the Springboks after 1,020 days (over two years) out for Slipper and 1,435 days (almost four years) out for White.
On the back of Slipper (1020) and White (1435) last week it’s pretty incredible.
— Reg Roberts (@RugbyReg) July 25, 2019
This marks some remarkable comeback stories for these players, who have had different troubles to face. Of course, the most impressive return is Leali’ifano’s after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2016.
After a short stint with Ulster in 2017, the 31-year-old has been back with the Brumbies and his form this season, taking his team to the semi-final, meant he was in line for another recall. He starts at fly-half in Brisbane to complete one of rugby’s most inspiring stories.
While O’Connor’s comeback may not be as impressive, he has still had to battle a lot of adversity after being fired by the Australian Rugby Union in 2013 after a series of off-field incidents. Once hailed as the golden boy of Australian rugby after making his Test debut at the age of 18, his poor attitude curtailed his career majorly. But after stints with London Irish, Toulon and most recently Sale Sharks, the utility back looks to have turned his career around.
Slipper is another player that returned last week after a drugs ban, to complete an ensemble of players that have returned after their international careers looked seemingly over.
However, some fans on Twitter have highlighted the slightly worrying signs about these returning players, that is they are being welcomed back as if they were new players. While Leali’ifano may be an exception, because his absence was due to health reasons, the other players left or were banned for a reason.
Jones and White moved to Bordeaux and Exeter Chiefs respectively, while discipline kept O’Connor and Slipper out. Some fans in the northern hemisphere would even suggest that the former Sale man has never been worthy of a recall based on his form.
This perhaps shows that the players coming through the Australian system are not good enough, meaning Cheika is reliant on former players to help. On the other hand, it could show that Cheika himself has not got to faith to try out younger players after a couple of years of regression.
There is no denying that some players playing in Europe would be welcomed back into the Wallabies set-up, with Saracens’ Will Skelton being a prime candidate.
While it would be nice for Australian fans see the lock return, as it has been to see these other players return, it is a sign that Cheika is trying all he can to turn the Wallabies’ fortunes around and maybe has not done it in a way that fills fans with confidence.
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.