Evolved O'Connor ready to embrace challenges of Wallabies no.10

by Emma Greenwood

James O'Connor's personal evolution has given him the tools to help erase one of the greatest hurts of his Wallabies career.

O'Connor is widely regarded as a front-runner for the Wallabies no.10 jersey when Australia open their international campaign against Ireland in Brisbane on July 4 given his form at flyhalf for the resurgent Reds.

He played in the centres at last year's Rugby World Cup and while he started the Super Rugby season at inside centre - and remains an option there for Dave Rennie - he is looking more and more like the man to steer the Wallabies around the park from no.10.

O'Connor has played there before, after being thrust into the hot seat against the British and Irish Lions in 2013, with Robbie Deans' team going on to lose the series 2-1.

But plenty has happened in the interim and the O'Connor of 2020 is "facing his fears" in the playmaking spot and showing why he deserves a second chance in a gold no.10.

"For me, it hurt me. It genuinely hurt and I can admit that now," O'Connor said of the 2013 series.

"I thought I played average, I thought with the knowledge I had of the game and the time I'd had in the saddle, looking back on it, I did all I could.

"When I came into 10 at the Wallabies last time, I hadn't spent enough time there. I thought I could do it and I guess a lot of people did believe me as well but I didn't understand the game well enough.

"I've come from a rugby league background and as much as you play at schoolboy (level) and you can do the job in Super Rugby because it's a very attacking style, at Test level it's a very different game. It's (a challenge) now that I'm ready for."

Once the wild child of Australian rugby and banished from the game here, O'Connor has undergone a personal renaissance with the help of the Saviour World organisation and is applying those lessons to rugby as well as his personal life.

"Going back there now, you can't run away from your problems, you can't hide from things and for me, it's facing (fear) head on, you take it on and once you defeat it, that's the whole point of life, to experience these challenges," he said of playing at flyhalf.

The Wallabies take on Ireland in July but O'Connor said he was not sure he was even a long-term option in a Red no.10 jersey.

"I'm not sure yet. At the moment it's panning out that way. But in saying that Zaccy Lucas is a great talent and I think he'll be coming through very soon - whether that's in the next few weeks, that's not my decision," he said.

"But I will say I am thoroughly enjoying it. It wasn't something I expected but I've got improvement in my game if I want to stay at 10, there's aspects that I need to work on.

"But I'm loving the extra time with ball in hand and there's guys that are willing to run through walls and run into holes that I'm picking out, so it's good footy."

And it's clear he would embrace the challenge if that's the way Rennie decides to go.

"I've got a lot to work on to get to that point. It hasn't really been something I've thought about but I've definitely put that out there now," he said.

The new Wallabies coach will have other options. Matt To'omua ended the World Cup as the preferred option at flyhalf, while Junior Wallabies back Noah Lolesio has shone for the Brumbies through the opening rounds of Super Rugby.

"They're both playing well, obviously Matt's been in the saddle a long time - I grew up playing with Matt and he's an all-out 10, I believe - he controls the game well, but Noah's showed what he can do, he's playing good, attacking footy," O'Connor said.

"It's just a matter of time whether he can develop quick enough.

O'Connor will turn 30 the day after the Wallabies first Test of the season though and has experience on his side.

"It takes a while to learn how to play 10. You can play it at schoolboys, you can play it at Super rugby but at Test level, it's a much different game and I found that out when I was younger.

"The margins for error are tiny and literally, the pace of the game's higher, the contact's higher, so … good luck to them both and good luck to me as well."

Tickets for the two-Test Ireland series - at Suncorp Stadium on July 4 and Sydney Cricket Ground on July 11 - go on sale on March 17.