O'Connor insisted on tough behavioural clauses in his new contract: Johnson

The Rugby Championship
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

James O'Connor insisted on inserting tough behavioural clauses into his new contract to show he has returned to Australian rugby for all the right reasons, according to Rugby AU director of rugby Scott Johnson.

O'Connor signed a new deal with Australian rugby and the Reds on Tuesday morning (AEST), making him immediately eligible for Wallabies duties just five days out from Sunday’s Rugby Championship opener against the Springboks.

Johnson, who is also a selector, said whether O'Connor is immediately thrust back into the Wallabies fold in Johannesburg after a six-year absence will come down to timing but he would considered under the same selection lens as every other player despite only two weeks with the team.

“He's here like everyone else,” Johnson said.

“We brought him in to fast track his understanding (of team patterns), he's been picked (in the squad) on form as a standout for his club in the UK.

“His form warrants it and he's in a position that gives us greater depth.

“He'll certainly come into discussions...whether this is the right time for him, we'll wait and see.”

A Brisbane Test against Argentina could also provide a chance for O’Connor to be given his first Test cap in six years should he be overlooked this week.

With O’Connor’s history of indiscretions, including a 2013 alcohol-related incident that ultimately led to contract being torn up, both the Reds and Rugby Australia were keen to complete their due diligence on the formerly controversial figure.

Johnson said he personally had a number of conversations with O’Connor to understand his motivation for returning home, and ultimately walking away from a more lucrative English Premiership deal.

“There were a lot of conversations and I needed to understand why he wanted to do this,” he said.

“It certainly wasn't the money.

“We saw the best of him as a young player. We're hoping the sport allows us to really showcase what we've missed the last five or six years.

“I genuinely believe in his sincerity about what he's trying to achieve.

“I think it's good for our sport if he comes back and plays well and is the man he really aspires to be.”

O’Connor’s contract is believed to include an unprecedented number of behavioural clauses, all of which have to be signed off by the Rugby Union Players’ Association, and Johnson said much of that was initiated by O’Connor.

“It's a clean skin from him to say I just want to talk about rugby, if I play up you've got the right (to get rid of me) - it's not going to be an arduous process,” he said.

“We're not even talking about them (the clauses). He wanted them in.

“He wanted complete transparency to protect everyone because he was sincere of his wishes so it's really good to have a lad forcing it to say, 'Just believe me cause this is what I'm about' and I go back to that he's a young bloke coming back who just wants to talk about rugby and be seen as a rugby player and we're there to support him.

“It's a good statement for players accepting their responsibility for their career so he's determined this and we've supported him on it.”

In the announcement of his new contract, O'Connor said his preference was to play 12, potentially putting him in competition with a red-hot Samu Kerevi.

Kerevi was arguably the form player in Super Rugby this season and offers a far different picture to the more playmaking centre that O'Connor would be.

"I think both types are great for the game and it's nice to have the choice.

I think Australians like to see the ball in play but if you look at Samu Kerevi he's not a just a one-trick pony anymore.

"He's adapting and reminds me a bit of where Ma'a Nonu got to in his game. He's starting to kick, he's starting to offload and add to his game."

While O'Connor has shown his ability in a host of positions over the years, Johnson said his desire to try and slot into one regular position now was a reflection of the flipside of utility value.

"I think he's worked out over time, his words not mine, that trying to work out what type of player he was probably cost him the position to be a standout  No.10," he said.

"He can play all the positions. His preference is 12."

Regardless of whether he makes it into the team, O’Connor has so far impressed his potential teammates as well since coming into camp in Brisbane, with Christian Lealiifano full of praise for the utility this week.

“Been really impressed, he's been awesome,” he said.

“Just the way he's trained, just the way he's gone about his business here has been second to none, he's been a real professional, he's gone and tried to make connections with guys that he hasn't really met or know that well.

“It's been really cool having him and around, just seeing him training as well, he hasn't lost his touch, so it's been exciting, been nice to have him round.”

O’Connor is far from the only intriguing selection decision in Wallabies camp this week and Johnson said form would be king in determining who suited up in the 23.

“It's a Test cap, we need to find out about a few but the discussion’s basically about form,” he said.

“Sometimes it's about positional requirements because of our needs but we're largely speaking about form and combinations - trying to understand what combinations could work.

“I'm sure over the next month or so people will get the chance to showcase that because we need to understand where we are at but we are out there trying to win a Test match.”

Johnson said there was also the matter of considering player workloads off the back of a long Super Rugby season, with some of the 10 Brumbies in the squad being monitored closely.

Players like front row duo Allan Alaalatoa and Scott Sio have both had heavy loads this year and Johnson said that needed to be taken into account as well.

“We're taking a longer view of some purely on the fact that some have had big seasons some may have slight ailments that we think aren't quite right to go.”

Johnson, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and dual international Mick O’Connor will convene on Wednesday to finalise the team for thefirst Test and Johnson said he expected there to be debate.

“You've got to listen to what the coach is trying to do for the rugby front and we've got to be respectful of that but, and I said earlier in the days, if you've got two people or three people always agreeing, you've got one or two too many,” he said.

“We're not there to agree but we're all there for the right reasons.

“We want the Wallabies to be strong, so it'll be robust debate and we've got to understand his philosophy too, there's no point trying to give him something that doesn't work with the philosophy but we think we've got the talent here.

“It's been good discussion and Cheik's been terrific in it, really good, he's challenged us and we've challenged him and it's been a really good process for us."

The Wallabies take on South Africa on Saturday July 20 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, kicking off at 5:05pm local, Sunday 1:05am AEST, LIVE on FOX SPORTS and Kayo.