James O'Connor's return to Australian rugby looms closer after Sale coach Steve Diamond said he would not stop the 28-year-old pursuing a World Cup spot by taking a contract at home.
Rumours of O'Connor's return have circulated widely this week, with speculation he could also be in line for a return to the Reds next season, or a move to Sevens as Australia's men push for a place in Tokyo.
O'Connor is in Sydney this week and has been posting social media updates of him training on Coogee Beach, not far from where the Wallabies are in camp.
Diamond's comments in an interview overnight with RugbyPass confirm Rugby Australia officials are in deep due diligence over a return for the 44-Test Wallaby.
Diamond revealed Sale would agree to release O'Connor from the final year of his contract with the English Premiership Rugby club if he is offered an opportunity.
It's not a vague gesture from Diamond either, with the coach having already shared O'Connor's stats from this season with Australian coaches and expecting that he will not have the classy back available to him next season.
It's understood Rugby Australia's new director of rugby Scott Johnson has been in contact with O'Connor and is assessing whether he could be valuable to the Wallabies' World Cup campaign.
It is understood Sevens coach Tim Walsh also interested in trialling O'Connor in the short version of the game, with an eye to the Tokyo Olympics.
“If I was a betting man I would be expecting to be waving goodbye to James shortly," Diamond told RugbyPass.
"James would be first to say he didn’t handle fame and fortune in the best way, but he is now 28 years old and a more accomplished player with silky skills and a brilliant ability to assist with line breaks and hits.
“I have let the Australian coaches look at our statistics for him this season and they show he is a fantastic defensive player and also great attacking threat. Whoever gets him is getting a little pearl.
"James could go back and become a Rugby Australia contracted player and they will then decide if he joins one of the Super Rugby teams or is part of the Sevens for the Olympic Games next year."
To be eligible to play at the World Cup, the Gold Coast product would need not only the nod from Rugby Australia but a Super Rugby contract for next season.
His return to Ballymore, after a brief stint with Queensland in 2015, would seem counter-intuitive under head coach Brad Thorn, given his hardline stance on drugs and O'Connor having been issued a sanction for cocaine use in Paris in 2017 when playing for Toulon.
However, indications are O'Connor - who made his debut for the Wallabies at just 18 - has turned his life around since moving to England, and developed into a much more mature and grounded character.
In an interview with RUGBY.com.au seven months ago, O'Connor revealed he hadn't drunk alcohol for the past nine months and had found a new way of living thanks to wholistic men’s health group Saviour World.
He has beefed up physically, employing a host of different training methods from jiu jitsu to nature walks and breathing technique work, along with usual gym work and rugby training.
“I don't drink anymore. It's all hand in hand with that,” O'Connor told RUGBY.com.au.
“I can't afford to have any days where I'm not moving forward or being depleted of my energy and my drive.”
Diamond is an uncompromising old-school coach, who reportedly lay down strict ground rules before offering O'Connor a chance with Sale after his stint in France came to an end.
His recommendation would likely go a long way with a coach like Thorn, who is also uncompromising but may be willing to give O'Connor a chance if he genuinely believes he has changed his ways and will be a good influence on young team-mates.
“While it’s frustrating to lose a player we have helped recapture his best form, it is every player’s desire to play at a World Cup and I would never block anyone’s opportunity to do that," Diamond told RugbyPass.
“James knows that he has been fantastic for us and I wish him all the best wherever he goes. He would go with our blessing."
O'Connor told RUGBY.com.au last year he still harboured ambitions to play in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, however far-fetched it seemed at the time.
“I watch every Test match and that's something that's changed,” he said.
“For a while I got a little, not exactly bitter, but I was pretty hurt that I wasn’t part of it.
“I was like, "I want to be there, I want to be doing that," but obviously choices and decisions that unfolded didn't allow that but the place I'm at now, I'm loving watching it.
“I think, I spoke out a couple of months ago and made it, put that out in the universe that I did want to play in this World Cup.
“It is what every top athlete strives for. In saying that, if it's meant to be it will happen.
“I'm not sure about all the workings around it and how it will do. All I can do is play each game and build my case for it
“I guess it starts after this phone call, I jump straight back into my routine and I prepare for my next (Sale) game.”
O'Connor has played mostly at inside centre for the Sharks this season, with the occasional gallop at 13 or fullback, creating plenty of scoring opportunities for Sale's pacey wingers.
It's in this guise he would be particularly useful for the Reds, who will lose inside centre Samu Kerevi and back-up Duncan Paia'aua to Japan and France respectively, next season.
Coming to the end of my training camp in Iceland and it has been a humbling and truly enlightening experience. I have been pushed into some very uncomfortable situations by @saviourworld through the use of sensory deprivation, heat exhaustion and deep states of meditation. My reaction to each stimulus has forced me to face myself and my darkness in a way that I have never felt before. I now know who I was but more importantly, I now see who I must become. 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. Time to shine! 🙌🦁👣
The exodus of experienced players from all Australian Super Rugby franchises make him an attractive option to domestic clubs but it's understood he's keen to return to Queensland.
The former Nudgee College student has made no secret of his desire to wear the gold jersey again, posting on Instagram last year about his wishes following a journey of self-discovery.
"I now know who I was but more importantly, I now see who I must become," O'Connor said following 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 have my eye firmly on the World Cup. I will not let myself or anyone down again. Time to shine!"