Sale confirms O'Connor release

Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

The announcement of an Australian homecoming for James O'Connor appears imminent with English club Sale confirming the utility's departure on Tuesday night.

O'Connor has been released from the final year of his three-year deal with Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond giving the 28-year-old his blessing to return home.

While no Australian club nor Rugby Australia has confirmed the deal, O'Connor has been closely linked with a return to the Queensland Reds.

The 44-Test back joined Sale ahead of the 2017-18 season, after a tumultuous final year with French club Toulon, and he has not been caught up in any controversies since coming to the Manchester club.

Diamond said O'Connor had worked to repay the team's faith in his two seasons with the club.

"James returns to Australia with the club's full blessing, he is an exceptional talent and we will be sorry to see him go, but he has a dream to play for his country again and I will never block anybody’s opportunity to do that, especially at a World Cup," he said in a statement.

"Since arriving in Manchester two years ago James has gone to extreme lengths to improve himself both mentally and physically, and has been successful in both areas. After chatting at length, we agreed the time is right for him to continue his ongoing journey back home.

"I would like to thank James for his commitment and contribution to the vision at Sale Sharks and wish him well in the future. I look forward to seeing him progress further in his career, both on and off the field.”

In a statement, O'Connor thanked the Sharks for giving him a chance in a "chaotic period" of his life.

"I have nothing but positive words to say about my experience at Sale Sharks," he said..

"They took me in and gave me an opportunity at a time in my life when I needed support and needed a chance to right my wrongs.

"In Manchester, I was given a foundation to do that. I will be forever grateful to Steve Diamond, all the players and coaches, and the Sale Sharks supporters who have all helped facilitate my journey back to full power, without the experience at Sale I would not have been able to grow and find my true self in a chaotic period of my life.

"It has been an honour to represent the club until the very end and I would again like to thank Dimes and everyone involved in my ongoing journey. The club is in a fantastic position and have made some great additions to the squad over the summer and I wish the Sharks every success for the future.”

Reports emerged earlier on Tuesday that O’Connor was on the verge of signing a deal with Queensland and potentially linking up with the Wallabies in camp or joining the squad when they travel to South Africa on Sunday.

James O'Connor has a new lease on life. Photo :Getty ImagesThe chances of that happening appeared slim with O'Connor remaining in Sydney as the Wallabies travelled to Brisbane for a four-day camp that ends on Thursday but it seems his hopes of a return home to push for a World Cup spot.are a step closer.

Aussie Sevens coach Tim Walsh was one of the men who helped spark  O'Connor's potential homecoming and he says the controversial figure's "burning" desire to represent Australia again made him a prospect worth considering.

Walsh met with O'Connor back in May in London about a potential opportunity with the Sevens team, a move that would also make him eligible for the Wallabies at the upcoming World Cup, and said he was blown away by the 28-year-old's attitude.

The Sevens coach had never crossed paths with O'Connor before that meeting but had read and heard a lot about the 44-Test Wallabies back.

What he found when they caught up was a player desperate to be a part of a national team and a far different figure from that whose Test career was seemingly cut off as a 23-year-old.

“He was just very honest and authentic, there was no bullshit, he just came across as very aware of who he was, what he'd done, what he hopes to do," Walsh said.

“I think there's a lot of sceptics but it's a very powerful thing he has - the desire to play for Australia -  it's burning and he's got some unfinished business and that's a powerful thing. 

“He was thrust into the limelight and all different things with so much talent, he's been learning as he's going along but also taking accountability and ownership upon himself, making no excuses, no blame and looking forward.” 

James O'Connor in action for Sale Sharks in their Challenge Cup semi-final match against La Rochelle in France in April. Photo: Getty Images

A Super Rugby deal would all but rule out an Olympic opportunity in the Tokyo 2020 games, though there could  be the potential for a dual contract to be struck in that space.

O'Connor expressed his desire to return to the Wallabies and push for a World Cup spot late last year but it was his potential as a Sevens prospect that saw Walsh begin conversations with the utility back.

“I started to talk with James and his agent a fair while ago, regarding a return to Australia and a way to do it,” he said.

“The World Cup is a huge ambition for any Australian player and certainly it was on James's radar to be eligible, he had to be contracted in Australia.

“From a Sevens point of view, he's a world class player and he has all the attributes to make a great Sevens player, but then you add his experience and what was the sceptic element was his colourful background.

“We had a lot of conversations and then we met with him in London and he came across as a mature, self-aware athlete and a person that I reckon would add value in any team."

While it is unclear what would happen if the World Cup possibilities fade, Walsh said O'Connor could be an asset in the Sevens program.

“The Sevens team at the moment we've got some very great players developing really well and he’d provide some really good competition but also bring some world-class attributes," he said.

“We’re lacking a bit of depth in the ball player centre role and defence as well, that’s probably one of our weaker points.

“He’s a very strong defender and he kicks as well, like drop kicking, and that’s very important for Sevens, so he ticked a lot of boxes.”