O'Connor officially eligible for Wallabies duty after inking new contract

The Rugby Championship
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

James O'Connor says he wants to repay some rugby debts after signing a new two-year deal with the Queensland Reds and Rugby Australia, opening the door for a Wallabies return.

O'Connor's contract makes him immediately eligible for Test selection, for the first time since 2013.

It is still unclear whether he would be in the mix to play against the Springboks this weekend but there would be no red tape stopping that from happening.

The 29-year-old was released from his English Premiership contract with Sale a season early to pursue a shot at a World Cup berth, after conversations with Rugby Australia.

O'Connor flew to South Africa as a non-playing part of the Wallabies squad ahead of this weekend's Rugby Championship opener and has been training with the wider squad for the better part of three weeks now.

The utility back hasn't played for the Wallabies in six years, racking up 44 Tests before the age of 23 before having his contract torn up after a series of indiscretions.

O'Connor has played in England and France since then, bar a season in Queensland back in 2015, but it wasn't until his most recent stint with Sale that he appeared to have truly matured.

The Queenslander said his outlook had changed in recent years and he was eager to be back in Australian rugby.

“Firstly, I just want to say how grateful I am to be given this opportunity again," he said.

"There’s been a lot of work put in behind the scenes and a lot of guys have shown faith in me so all I’m focusing on right now is putting my best foot forward.

"I have a bigger ‘why’ now and that is what fuels me. In saying that, I’m excited to be back here. Even at 29, I’m still learning and we’re really pushing each other.

"It’s been an intense hit the last few weeks, but I think I’m in a lot better place physically."

James O'Connor was invited into Wallabies training camp this week. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyO'Connor said he felt he had a debt to repay to the Reds after cutting short his previous stint there for 'personal reasons'.

“I’m a Queenslander. I was born there. I started playing rugby there. It’s where the dream began.

"I think a big part as well is that I owe Queensland the best version of myself. I came back last time and I wasn’t in the best place mentally, but also physically I was quite broken, so I couldn’t produce and perform the rugby I wanted to for the team. I’m finally ready to return and make amends.

"I want to do right by the team and the fans, and I intend to deliver the very best of my energy. If I can help the team get back to the top of the sport and if we can bring success back to Queensland, that would be a dream for me."

O'Connor said he had learned from that last experience.

“The last time I returned, I thought I was ready to repair some of the mistakes I made but also reach my rugby potential, but it was too rushed," he said.

"I didn’t recognise how much pain I was still in mentally, in saying that, I wouldn’t change it because I was guided to the correct mentors.

"I’ve been on a journey ever since to understanding my true self and how I’m meant to use my privileged position in rugby. 

"I see now that rugby is a gift and I want my journey back to inspire possibly other young men out there who may be a little lost in the world right now. If I can make it back from adversity, then so can you."

O"Connor has played across the backline and could be a handy Mr Fix-It for the national side but he said he felt 12, where he has been playing most of his recent rugby, was his preferred role.

“I think 12 is my position," he said.

"I’ve been playing there the last two years and I’m most comfortable there. I think it’s best with the style of Rugby I play and the way I have developed being overseas.

"Also, I’m now a bit of a nugget so I fit in there quite nicely.

"But of course, I will cover anywhere in the backline – whatever the team needs. It would simply just be an honour to put the shirt back on again. I would play prop if I had to."

Rugby Australia director of rugby Scott Johnson said he felt O'Connor deserved an opportunity.

"James has immense rugby talent. He started his career in Queensland and this is a chance for him to show his full potential for his home state," he said.

“Now is the time for James’ rugby to do the talking. He’s come home for the right reasons to play Rugby and to help develop our Rugby programs.

“He’s matured and understands the leadership roles both on-and-off the field. He’s been honest and transparent throughout this whole process.

“We want to back the man to be the player we know he can be,”

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