2011 controversy feels like "two lifetimes ago" for O'Connor ahead of Japan World Cup

Rugby World Cup
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

James O’Connor has been named in two World Cup squads in his career but Friday’s 2019 squad announcement was the first that he actually experienced first hand.

Just over eight years ago to the day, O’Connor was named in his first World Cup squad but he was not there to soak up the moment.

In an infamous chapter of his early career, the then 21-year-old missed the 2011 Rugby World Cup announcement after staying out drinking until the early hours of the morning.

This time around, O’Connor was there to be counted, in a small symbol of how he has matured in recent seasons.

O’Connor admitted he had reflected on that 2011 incident in recent days, with a sense that he has closed the book on that part of his life.

The Wallabies' 2011 World Cup photo, minus O'Connor. Photo: Getty Images“I was speaking to (Wallabies flanker) Dave Pocock about that last night, that the only constant in life is change and growth,” he said.

“If you're not growing or moving, I guess you're dead you're not alive. It almost feels like two lifetimes ago, not even just one. I was still a boy back then.

“It comes around in circles, loops.

“It feels almost like I've closed that chapter and I'm back to this point where I can actually move forward and I have my why again, I have my purpose for playing.”

O’Connor has been back with the Wallabies outfit for less than two months, after six years in the wilderness, but such has been his dedication since his return that his inclusion in the World Cup squad was ultimately not a shock.

Though his form might have warranted a spot, O’Connor said the overwhelming emotion he had when he received his call from former Wallaby Tim Horan informing him of his selection on Tuesday night was “relief”.

“There was never a moment I thought (I was definitely in), until I got that phone call from Tim.

"It sounds strange but it was almost relief as well like, 'I'm here, this happened'. I'm feeling it now, I can feel goosebumps on my body.

“If you had told me two years ago, three years ago when I was in France that I would be in this place mentally, physically and in this position of playing for Australia again I would've said, "you're dreaming".”

James O'Connor was invited into Wallabies training camp this week. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyAccording to teammates and coaches, O’Connor has shown immense dedication since coming back to Australia and he feels he is starting to earn the trust of teammates with each week.

“I was just speaking before, even on the field, training's one thing but on the field is where you really bond,” he said.

“The guys, for me as well, being able to play with someone you have to trust them and I am, I'm feeling it.

“Every game I can feel boys are putting more faith into me to make the right decisions to give me that responsibility when a big play is on the line.

“I appreciate that and I won't abuse that. I have been blown away because what you see is what you get now, I'm an open book, I don't have anything to hide.”

Coming back into Australia with a host of prior controversies behind him, O’Connor wasn’t sure what reception to expect.

“In saying that as well everyone has genuinely been so supportive, more so than I thought.

“I thought it would be a lot tougher to come back and face the media and face the general public.

“I knew what I was about but words are cheap and I had a lot of words back in the day, so I just want to deal through actions. I think that is all there is in this world now is action.”

James O'Connor at the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad announcement. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyO’Connor’s on-field actions are certainly earning praise with his partnership with Samu Kerevi showing promise through the Bledisloe Cup series and he is keen to keep building that.

"I feel centre's my best position, so 12 or 13, number doesn't really matter and the way that Samu's playing, wherever he wants to play, it's like let's keep on doing what he wants to do," he said.

"I'm there to help get him more ball and get him more one-on-ones and also guys like Marika (Koroibete) and Kurtley (Beale), and bethe eyes and ears for guys like Christian (Laliifano) and Foles (Bernard Foley) and Matty To'omua.

"I've always wanted to be in that role - I used to play the game, I wanted this but I wanted that and now that centre position, even my body shape now, I'm a little nugget, I'm suited to that position and the way we're playing I'm still attacking as the second ball player as a 12 but we're using our skill set.

"So, I'll come in to run one play and Samu will come in for another and it's sort of smoke and mirrors as well.

"If you see Samu in tight, you think he's going to carry and then we'll do a play. I've really enjoyed that - even against the All Blacks we had a great connection on the field and we're both trying to manipulate their defences and move them around a bit and I thought it worked pretty well in the times we got to attack."

The Wallabies open their Rugby World Cup campaign against Fiji at the Sapporo Dome on Saturday September 21, kicking off at 2:45pm AEST, LIVE on Foxtel and Network Ten.