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RUGBYPASS+ Rejuvenated James O'Connor primed for jersey dogfight

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Rejuvenated James O'Connor primed for jersey dogfight

James O’Connor is going back to where his life turned the corner: The United Kingdom.

It was there, in Sale, the northwest of England, where the Australian’s “second life started” in the middle of 2017.

Months earlier, O’Connor, for two nights, languished frightened in a Paris jail cell, holding a thin blanket and sharing a mattress between three men.

It was in the dead of the night that O’Connor, with screams echoing throughout the jail from fellow inmates, the prodigious talent with peroxide hair recognised he needed to change.

He walked out of the Parisian cell embarrassed and was soon let go from Toulon.

James O’Connor spent three seasons with Toulon from 2014 to 2017. (Photo by Getty Images)

By June 2017, with Toulon’s eccentric billionaire owner Mourad Boudjellal believing O’Connor had “problems” – though he would “not kill him either” – he joined Steve Diamond at the Sharks.

A diamond from the rough emerged.

O’Connor has surprised everyone with how the second-youngest Wallaby of all time has turned his career around.

Few Super Rugby sides wanted to touch the fallen golden boy of Australian rugby when he expressed interest, first, of joining Tim Walsh’s squad with the hope of playing at the Olympics and, second, when the Wallabies found out about his aspirations and wanted him back in the country so he would be available for selection.

By the middle of 2021, off the back of two squeaky clean years where he has impressed everyone with his leadership and game-awareness and maturity on and off the field, he was re-signed on a considerably better deal through to the 2023 World Cup in Japan.

Eventually, through numerous negotiations between then Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, new Rugby Australia director of rugby Scott Johnson and Reds coach Brad Thorn, he would return to Queensland, with every man and their dog having a big gulp and hoping the O’Connor Hail Mary would come off.

Rugby Australia picked up O’Connor at a bargain price.

Having abused the system for years, it was time he repaid the country which nurtured his development before benefiting from it once again.

By the middle of 2021, off the back of two squeaky clean years where he has impressed everyone with his leadership and game-awareness and maturity on and off the field, he was re-signed on a considerably better deal through to the 2023 World Cup in Japan.

It was on Wednesday, October 13, that O’Connor packed his bags and headed to Brisbane Airport.

He sat in the lounge and took stock on the journey he was about to go on again.

Cameron Clyne Rugby Australia
The Wallabies were bundled out of the 2019 World Cup at the quarter-finals stage by England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

First stop: Japan, the scene of his 2019 World Cup devastation, where the Wallabies “didn’t quite fire how I thought we could have,” O’Connor reflected to RugbyPass.

But it’s next on the Wallabies’ itinerary where O’Connor is most excited about.

It will be the first time O’Connor has returned to England since finding himself.

“You know that Bane quote from Batman,” he says, “’You think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark. I was born in the darkness, moulded by it.’

“My whole new life started over there.”

After claiming six straight wins in Queensland in 2021, the Wallabies will travel to the United Kingdom where the conditions will be anything but the hard and humid atmosphere they faced in the Sunshine State.

After being taught another painful lesson by the All Blacks following their important series victory against France in July, the Wallabies have found a second wind.

Off the back of the stunning returns from Samu Kerevi and Quade Cooper to the national set-up, the Wallabies won four straight tests to finish the Rugby Championship on a high.

Along the way, they carved out some history by becoming the first Australian team to win four straight in the Championship or Tri Nations.

But after claiming six straight wins in Queensland in 2021, the Wallabies will travel to the United Kingdom where the conditions will be anything but the hard and humid atmosphere they faced in the Sunshine State.

O’Connor knows it too, saying: “It will be interesting to see how the boys adapt to wet weather footy.”

His statement came unsolicited, almost as if O’Connor believes he might be able to come into his own on the tour.

Quade Cooper helped guide the Wallabies to back-to-back wins over the Springboks in this year’s Rugby Championship competition. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt/ www.photosport.nz)

Having slipped behind his long-time teammate and friend Cooper, O’Connor is brimming with excitement about what awaits.

“That’s where I started my second career,” he says.

“It was in the grind there. Training every day and having to build that willpower to get into the gym, get out onto the training field, it’s bloody freezing, it was just a grind.

“That’s one element to it. There’s another beautiful element, especially in winter, it’s a genuine winter, it’s a great experience.”

O’Connor’s journey to discovering himself is well documented, as he joined the group Saviour World and started pushing his body to limits never experienced.

He would use his own money to go off to training camps, plunging himself in freezing waters and meditating.

Although he played Wales and the Barbarians following the 2011 World Cup, the current trip to the UK is his first proper spring tour since 2010, after missing the 2012 trip through injury and being dropped by the then Australian Rugby Union in 2013 following another alcohol-fuelled incident in Perth.

“I’m genuinely excited,” he says.

“The one thing about spring tours, you’re in a completely different time zone to back home so you really are just with the team, with your brothers, with the coaches, you’re almost in your own world.

“You still communicate with your family back home, but with the different timezones, it’s almost like a text message here, a phone call there, it’s a great thing and great experience.

“There’s that bit of excitement. The one thing, apart from the World Cup where you’re away for six weeks but it’s a pressure cooker environment, I haven’t actually been away from home with this group of guys, so I’m really looking forward to it.

“I’m excited to go away on tour with Quade and keep connecting and sharing stories.”

Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale were key players for the Wallabies during the early 2010s. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Cooper’s own journey back to Australian rugby is quite the story.

Two-thirds of the “three amigos”, few would have pictured that Cooper and O’Connor would have been the two lightning rods Australian rugby needed.

“We really connected and we did a lot of sharing and we both shared our journeys on where we are now,” O’Connor said, with the two roommates in Townsville in late September.

“There’s many different ways up the mountain, but at the end of the day they’re all the same. It’s been great to see how he’s evolved.

“Just the influence he’s having on the team, it’s really inspiring to see, there’s so much belief going around and I truly believe that he’s had a big part of that.”

O’Connor and Cooper first went on a spring tour in 2008.

While the baby-faced O’Connor had already made his debut, Cooper came off the bench in an electric display as he twinkle-toed his way to the line against Italy.

As he recalls it, “It feels like a lifetime ago.”

“We were both young kids, literally roaming the streets of Padova, we had a lot of energy, put it that way. I don’t know how we got out on tour as much as we did.

“The next year as well, filming those tour diaries and videoing our exploits with Kurtley [Beale] and [David] Pocock et cetera, so I’ve got a lot of memories from those tours.”

While O’Connor once was the man running inside and outside Cooper, the duo are now competing for the one role: the No 10 jersey.

Quade Cooper and James O’Connor spent much of their early test careers together – and will likely finish them out in the same boat. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

O’Connor first wore it for the Wallabies in late 2011 after Cooper’s heartbreaking knee injury suffered in their bronze medal match against Wales at the World Cup.

But for the 31-year-old, two years Cooper’s junior, he doesn’t see himself as competing with his teammate as learning from each other and pushing each other further.

“We’ve spent a lot of time playing together,” O’Connor says. “I don’t really see it as competing, we both play very differently.

“The one thing I would say, he’s mastered his craft. He’s been in that 10 role for a long time and I’ve just moved there, so I’m picking his mind and how he sees the game and blending our strategies and even coming up with little game plans and moves.

I do want that 10 jersey and I’ll be pushing him and he’ll be pushing me, but the one thing is we both genuinely push each other.

O’Connor on his friendly rivalry with Quade Cooper

“From my point of view, he’s the 10 at the moment – and I’m not bigger than the team.

“The one thing that I’ve reflected on in coming back is that my love for the team is far greater than my own personal goals, so wherever I fit into this group and whatever that looks like, I’m excited.

“Without being too outcome driven, that World Cup, I do want that 10 jersey and I’ll be pushing him and he’ll be pushing me, but the one thing is we both genuinely push each other.

“We’ve been great friends since we were 17, and I’m genuinely happy to see him doing so well and it’s lit a flame in me and I’m excited to see where I can take my game.”

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