James O’Connor has a road back to Australian rugby.
Eight years on from his infamous departure, O’Connor’s original Super Rugby club Western Force have extended an olive branch for the wayward star to return home and attempt to rebuild his reputation.
ESPN can reveal the Force are happy to talk with O’Connor about a return to Australia, after the former Wallabies utility took to Instagram earlier this week to announce his Rugby World Cup goal and that he was ready to “bleed green and gold.”
“I now know who I was but more importantly, I now see who I must become,” O’Connor posted from a training camp in Iceland. “It is time for me to share my truth. I have a deep desire to play for the Wallabies again. I have learnt from my mistakes and I am now ready. Ready to bleed green and gold. Ready to bleed for my brothers. Ready to bleed for the people. I will be back playing in October and I will have my eye firmly on the World Cup. I will not let myself or anyone down again.”
O’Connor will return to the field for Sale next month after an injury-delayed start to the English Premiership. But if he is serious about a return home, the Force may be his best available option next year.
“That’s the type of player we’re looking for,” Force great and Head of Elite Performance Matt Hodgson told ESPN. “Obviously knowing James quite well, he’d potentially be one we’re looking at; I think he fits the criteria we’re looking at, especially leading into a World Cup year. Like James mentioned, [if] he is interested in coming back for the World Cup, then this is a good avenue and something we would potentially look at.”
Having departed the Force after the 2010 Super Rugby season in a bid to build his “rugby brand” with Melbourne Rebels, O’Connor lurched from one bad story to the next. There were a number of off-field indiscretions, before an incident at Perth airport eventually saw his Australian Rugby Union contract torn up in 2013 and O’Connor move overseas.
He returned as one of former Reds coach Richard Graham’s key signings in 2015, again to chase a World Cup spot with the Wallabies. But having missed out on that squad, it was announced midway through the tournament that O’Connor had left Ballymore for “personal reasons.”
In early 2017, O’Connor was arrested for attempting to buy cocaine alongside former All Blacks lock Ali Williams in Paris. The Australian’s contract with French club Toulon was not renewed as a result, but he was thrown a lifeline from Sale where he played 13 games over the 2017/18 European season.
Having been at the Force when O’Connor departed and acutely aware of each of his off-field indiscretions since, Hodgson understands how any potential Force deal could look. But he says the club is open to wiping the slate clean, and helping James achieve his World Cup goal.
“James has come to realise himself, and I think that was always going to be the first step that was needed, for him to realise what he has done wrong in the past and where he wants to go in the future,” Hodgson told ESPN. “So that’s a big step forward for him. Obviously words are one thing and actions are another, so we’ll see how that plays out.
“But I think we’ve got to look at this not at what James has done to the Western Force but what James could potentially offer into the future, and where he could sit on the radar as a player, because we all know he’s got the ability and he’s got x-factor to him. It’s whether James sees this as an avenue and a stepping stone in that direction.”
The back-three is an area of strength in Australian rugby but if O’Connor was to recapture the form that made him a lock on the right wing under Robbie Deans – he later shifted to No.10 for the 2-1 series defeat by the British & Irish Lions in 2013 – he would certainly come into contention for Rugby World Cup 2019.
There is also the issue of Wallabies eligibility. A Rugby Australia spokesperson told ESPN the subject of Force contracts being recognised by the governing body was a topic of ongoing discussion with World Series Rugby administrators. Interestingly, Force fly-half Andrew Deegan played for the Super Selection XV against the Wallabies in the pre-Rugby Championship trial match.
Should the Wallabies not be interested nor Rugby Australia be prepared to register a playing contract, Hodgson said World Series Rugby could provide O’Connor the chance to join another entity within the fledgling competition.
“So it all sits where we get with Wallaby eligibility and things like that,” Hodgson said of how O’Connor could participate. “Ideally, if he comes back and plays with another Australian team that’s a way of making the World Cup. But if he wants to come back and play in this competition [World Series Rugby], there’s other areas and other teams and jurisdictions where he could come back and get himself back on the radar through this region, other than the UK area, put him back in the forefront of selectors and Australian rugby people.”
Having been cast aside by Rugby Australia with the reduction to four teams for a revised Super Rugby season, the Force are no strangers to having to fight for a future themselves. It could be why the club is willing to take a chance on arguably the greatest wasted talent in recent Australian rugby history.
“There’s James that was on field and James that was off field; definitely the highlights [were] on-field playing with him,” Hodgson recalls of his time playing alongside O’Connor at the Force. “Actually seeing him just grow up as a rugby player; if we just talk about the on-field [effort], how he developed his skills and not only became just an x-factor player but a game-management player and the way he saw rugby and the way he viewed rugby.
“The problem with James was his off-field stuff marred what he was doing on the field at certain times. If we could flip that ratio around; I think that he probably realises that that’s an option he probably should have taken growing up. But we’re all young at some stage and we do make mistakes. The biggest problem with James [and other young players] is that they’re put in the limelight, misguided and misdirected at a young age, and they probably don’t know any other way, and everything they do is under the microscope.
“So like I said, James is learning the differences now; if he could do what he did on the field and that matched up with what he was doing off the field, then that’s a big step forward for him.”
NSW Waratahs and the Brumbies both confirmed to ESPN O’Connor wasn’t on their radar while given the way his previous Queensland Reds stint ended, it’s understood the 28-year-old is unlikely to return to Ballymore.
Melbourne Rebels did not respond to request for comment.