Thorn: Why signing O'Connor to Reds is not a double-standard

Super Rugby
by Emma Greenwood

Reds coach Brad Thorn knows his decision to hand James O'Connor a contract could be views as hypocrisy but is banking on a redemption story after being convinced the reformed rebel is treading a new path.

Thorn earnt a reputation as a hardline coach after the Reds axed Karmichael Hunt and James Slipper after both players had dalliances with cocaine - Slipper testing positive twice and Hunt charged possession in late 2017 before those charges were dropped last year, hunt pleading guilty to the lesser charge of possession of a Xanax tablet.

So the recruitment of O'Connor, a player with a chequered off-field past who was fined by French police for using cocaine in Paris in 2017, seems a double standard.

O'Connor, who is in South Africa training with the Wallabies, became immediately eligible for Test selection after signing a two-year deal with the Reds and Rugby Australia on Monday night.

James O'Connor was invited into Wallabies training camp this week. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

The Reds completed significant due diligence on O'Connor before signing the 29-year-old, with Thorn believing he deserved a chance after the player's acknowledgement of his past indiscretions and clean record over the past two years.

Thorn said he was impressed by O'Connor's willingness to accept his mistakes and not shy away from the "hard questions" that were asked of him by coaches and QRU board members.

"Probably the thing that impressed me the most was he didn't shy away from hard questions," Thorn said.

"We were pretty direct in our questions and our chat with him. There was no shuffling or anything, it was just: 'Yep, this is where it was at, this is how things were. I've learnt some hard lessons'."

It's that space between his past actions and feeback from Sale coach Steve Diamond on how O'Connor is likely to fit into the Reds young group that has enabled Thorn to separate his past and present.

Brad Thorn tackles James O'Connor in their Bledisloe Cup in 2009. The two had not met off the field before last month. Photo: Getty images encounter in

"That (Hunt and Slipper incidents) was in this environment, this team" Thorn said.

"Two senior guys, with a whole bunch of young guys coming through.

"I'm really pleased that they got other opportunities but there needed to be changes here at this club and I made some hard decisions around not just that stuff, but the footy stuff as well.

"With James (O'Connor), he's had a stretch of time with different things happening and he's had a body of work over the last two years that's backed up by quite a lot of feedback and he seems to be in a lot different space from what he was.

"Definitely it was pretty thorough, our due diligence with James."

 

Thorn knows the reputation he earnt by taking a stand on Slipper, Hunt and Quade Cooper, who also moved on at the end of last season.

But he revealed the personal cost that came in making decisions he believed were in the best interests of the group.

"With those decisions at the time, they were tough decisions," he said.

"Those two guys (Hunt and Slipper), I played with one of those guys (Hunt), we won a grand final at the Broncos and he's a guy that I care about.

"And obviously with the other guy (Slipper), he'd been a long-serving member, so they were tough decisions.

The Reds host the Rebels on Saturday night. Photo: Getty Images

"It sort of painted me, I guess, as a hardliner - if someone does something wrong, boom, they're gone - but we're bringing through a whole bunch of young guys coming through and that was, those situations were tough.

"But I was pleased where they landed, I was pleased for them and their families that they've been doing well where they are.

"They've got another opportunity and they've done well with that."

And it's an opportunity he wants for O'Connor.

#internacional #Australia James O'Connor regresa a @redsrugby!!! El polifuncional back australiano disputará nuevamente el #Súper #Rugby y ya está en #Johannesburgo, listo para debutar en el Rygby #Championship 2019 con Australia. Tras un paso poco afortunado por Europa (London Irish, Toulon y Sale Sharks), que incluyó episodios polémicos extra deportivos, a los 29 años se siente "más maduro", según sus propias declaraciones, para asumir este nuevo desafío en su país de origen. Conocido por debutar en el Súper Rugby (17) y en los Wallabies (18, siendo el más joven en hacerlo en su selección), siempre se lo catalogó como "el niño prodigio de Australia". Disputó el Mundial 2011, el único al momento, en el alcanzó la tercera posición con su selección. Redondeó una buena actuación y , además, se ubicó segundo en la tabla de goleadores con 52 puntos, debajo de Morne Steyn (62). ¿Podrá conquistar la gloria en el Rugby Australiano? Otra chance se le presenta para dar pelea... . . . #rugby #australia #internacional #james #oconnor #reds #wallabies #championship #mundial #rwc #instarugby #rugbyshownet

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"I guess this is another opportunity for James and it's a pretty important one to get right. We all like a redemption story … you have errors, you have mistakes and you like seeing guys turn that around.

"With James, it looks like he's in a pretty good space from what we've heard about him, having met him and we're pleased to have him."

While he did not go into detail on O'Connor's contract, Thorn said there had been no baulking from the player on stipulations that Rugby Australia and the Queensland Rugby Union are likely to have insisted on given his past.

"The contract, he was a big part of making that happen around the detail of that stuff - obviously I don't want to talk about that here - but I think that shows a guy that wants to play," Thorn said.

"There wasn't much that was an issue."

 

Another positive from Thorn's perspective was feedback on O'Connor's mentoring skills, something that will be key in a young Reds squad.

"The feedback we got from (Sale coach Steve Diamond) was that he's been outstanding on and off the field - his leadership with the team, with the footy stuff, but also mentoring some of the young guys, which was good to hear," Thorn said.

"He's learnt some hard lessons and if he can come to a place with that sort of stuff, it can be a real strength impacting on others.

"It appears in the last couple of years, there's been a turning point for James.

James O'Connor is in the mix for his Test comeback this weekend. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

"It can be a really good story because at the end of the day, we all want to see someone reach their potential with footy, but more importantly, as young men.

"He looks like, from every action he's taken, with his contract, everything, the chats we've had and the feedback we've got, you've got a guy who's really determined to … I don't know if it's put things right or change the narrative but I just sense there's a hunger there to put that jersey on and do the business."