Four years after a World Cup game ignited their public feud, former Wallabies fullback Greg Martin says he’s “excited” James O’Connor has rescued his career and is on the verge of playing in the 2019 World Cup opener.
A war of words erupted between the two Wallabies in 2015 when O’Connor took issue on social media with critical commentary from Martin on FoxSports at the last World Cup.
On radio in Brisbane, Martin labelled O’Connor “immature” and said he was the “greatest waste of Australian rugby talent’. In a 1500-word reply on Facebook, O’Connor accused Martin of betraying the "sacredness and brotherhood" of the Wallabies and slammed him as an attention-seeker.
“It started with the Wallabies-Uruguay, in Birmingham, 2015 World Cup. I was commentating and despite them winning I was realistic and said there were some less-than-stellar performances. He took to me a bit for that,” Martin said.“I went back on radio and he hit back again with thousands of words on Facebook.
“That’s where it stemmed from and the feud went on for a while but eventually there was a truce called and it was a sensible one.
“I don’t have a beef with the young bloke. I was disappointed for him and how he’d gone at the Reds that season, and I just said he was wasting his career.”
O’Connor played for the Reds in 2015 in attempt to make the last Rugby World Cup, but after an injury-affected season, returned to Europe for ‘personal reasons’.
O’Connor, who’d had his ARU contract torn up in 2013 for off-field problems, ran into more trouble in France and has admitted since he'd "lost his way".
But O'Connor then turned his whole life around with a move to Sale in England. He has spoken often about finding the Saviour World group, and after a focus on improving his mental and physical well being, O’Connor this year returned to Australia to pursue another shot at the World Cup.
He was given a chance and, this time, the new O’Connor has thrived. After a star role in Australia’s win over New Zealand in Perth, the 29-year-old is expected to be named at outside centre in the World Cup opener against Fiji in Sapporo.
Martin said he’d spoken briefly with O’Connor since his return, and not only has the hatchet stayed buried, he’s genuinely pleased for the 47-cap Wallaby.
“We had a chat this year and I am very excited for him. I am excited we have something with speed and smarts, someone like him who can follow up Kerevi and then there’s Koroibete on the outside, we might score some points,” Martin said.
“Because that’s what we have been short on – the ability to score unexpected points. Without Folau, we need something.”
Martin said he trusted the word of senior Wallabies teammates who now speak glowingly of O’Connor and the way he is going about his business.
The gratitude I am feeling towards the higher power that has governed and guided my journey to this point cannot be put into words but there is something that can. That is my drive and determination to use this blessing, this platform, this position of power to fight and shine for every man in this world that is struggling right now. Struggling with depression. Struggling to get motivated. Struggling to live. I fight and play for you my brothers. This is the reason for my rise. This is my purpose. This is my truth ✊👣 @saviourworld
“I have been listening to his manager telling me for a few years he’s doing this, he doing that. So when he came back I thought, ok time will tell. He has been here long enough to show us he has changed,” Martin said.
“And that’s great. He’d been in a bubble for a long time. People were backslapping him from the age of 14 at Nudgee and his career was passing him by. He was wasting his career, like Kyrgios.
“He has got this last chance and he’s taking it well.
“I haven’t spent any time with him but if Will Genia is saying “he’s doing all the right things”, I am happy with that.
“I like what he’s done and I guess time will tell if there are any more twists and turns. But he’s not going to explode, you talk to his teammates in the Wallabies and they confirm, it’s a different James O’Connor.”
Martin said part of the sting in his words with O’Connor in 2015 were due to his frustration at seeing such a talented player not fulfilling his potential.
So he is also pleased to see that the utility back, who has re-signed for Queensland next season, has not lost his skills.
“He has beefed up, he’s got stronger and he doesn’t seem to have lost his footwork. And he’s now got that one-arm offload,” Martin said.
“I reckon he is the man for that 13 jumper, ahead of Kuridrani. I don’t think we have room for two bullocking centres and time has shown that. We need speed and skill, and O’Connor has both.”