James O’Connor was the new Damian McKenzie from 2008-13.
The Wallaby was something of a teenaged rugby prodigy. He had pace, he had flair, he had no fear. Plus he was strong, versatile and he could kick goals. His haircut was a bit dodgy and he tended to wear his socks around his ankles. But there was no doubting his talent.
O’Connor played 27 Tests before he hit 21 years of age. At the Force, he wowed the crowds with his brilliance. In his first start for Australia, in 2009 against the Azzurri, he bounced off no less a star than Sergio Parisse to score one of his three tries. A star was born.
We know he rammed a knife through All Blacks hearts in 2010 with the winning try and sideline conversion in Hong Kong.
At times, we thought he was a decent bloke, such as in Rugby World Cup 2011 when he rocked up, unannounced, to his old school in west Auckland to say gidday to his old teachers.
But things got rocky at times for O’Connor. He overslept and missed a 2011 Wallaby photo call, incurring the ire of Wallaby coach Robbie Deans. A switch from the Force to the Melbourne Rebels saw him refer to himself as a “brand” (!). Who was advising the bloke?
By the end of 2013 he had, at just 23, played his 44th and last Test for the Wallabies, or so we all thought. There were stints in France with Toulon and in England with London Irish and latterly Sale Sharks. He did not cover himself with glory off the field.
He’s only just turned 29, can you believe, and yet he finds himself back in the Wallaby fold. While he missed the cut for this weekend’s Rugby Championship opener against the Springboks, one would think he hasn’t turned up just for a haircut, as the Aussies are wont to say. Michael Cheika must feel that he has sorted himself out sufficiently to be worth a look, especially with Israel Folau now off the scene.
Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn took some convincing that O’Connor was sincere in his belief that he was a reformed character. Only when that was done did he sign a two-year deal with the Reds. Thorn suffers no fools – look how he dealt with Quade Cooper – so this is a big step.
Just where O’Connor will fit into the Wallabies is debatable. He can play anywhere in the backline save halfback, but rule him out as a wing prospect. Men such as Kurtley Beale and Matt Toomua can do a job in the five-eighths or fullback, and yet we hear No 12 is O’Connor’s preferred position. If he can turn back the clock and give us some of his old magic, then the Wallabies are in for a ride over the next three months, including at Rugby World Cup. If he doesn’t, hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
But it might just be compelling, fun viewing over the next few weeks.
Watch – Michael Cheika explains team selection for Springboks test:
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