Seven years ago, following the British and Irish Lions series defeat in Sydney, James O’Connor ran away from rugby’s playmaking position and Australia.
Bledisloe II might have rocked the Wallabies’ confidence slightly, as O’Connor’s halves partner Nic White admitted on Monday, but the born-again star is right where he wants to be: the coal face, with Australia requiring to beat the All Blacks on Saturday in Sydney - the same ANZ venue the Lions sealed their series win – to keep the Bledisloe Cup alive.
Matt To’omua’s groin injury means Dave Rennie will all but certainly be forced to tweak his backline. He has a number of options, including shifting O’Connor out one position to the second playmaking role and bringing in uncapped Brumby Noah Lolesio at fly-half. But more likely he will promote another Brumby, with Irae Simone expected to make his debut at inside centre and Lolesio to come off the bench, leaving O’Connor to continue to pull the strings.
Speaking to reporters in the Hunter Valley on Monday, O’Connor gave a clue about where he’s likely to lineup on Saturday when he emphatically stated his desire to continue wearing the jersey few thought he would ever lineup in again.
“That’s definitely a possibility, I’ve spent a lot of time at 12 but at the moment I’m enjoying playing 10,” O’Connor said.
Be there for the third Bledisloe Cup clash at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium, Saturday 31 October. Tickets HERE
The 30-year-old’s career has come full circle since then-Wallabies coach Robbie Deans sensationally selected O’Connor at fly-half ahead of Quade Cooper, Christian Lealiifano and Matt To’omua in 2013.
Only a matter of months after playing fly-half on rugby’s biggest stage outside of a World Cup year, O’Connor wasn’t just out of the team, he was out of the country.
His journey has been well-documented since then - with O’Connor crediting Saviour World for turning his life around – but few would have thought the second youngest Wallaby of all time would return to the 10 position again.
“I think after that (Lions) series, not that I didn’t play my best footy, I just didn’t have the understanding I do now of how to control a game and I didn’t quite step up,” he said.
“I felt I went into my shell and didn’t fire my shots as I had in Super Rugby previously and when I had pulled on that 10 jersey earlier in my career.
“In terms of running away, I just didn’t want to play 10 anymore, so I moved to 15 and I played a little bit on the wing and I was finding my feet where I was actually going to be playing. I always knew in the back of my mind 10 was the goal, but I made 12 a good home for the time being and learnt the skills of what I needed from 10 and (when I was in the) outside backs and then it’s been a natural progression as I’ve matured, using my mind and less my body and, I guess, playing for the team more so than looking (at it) as an individual.”
Yet, even last year, when O’Connor shocked Australian rugby by returning home, he was viewed as a centre.
It wasn’t until the Wallabies were bundled out of the World Cup in Japan that the “little pearl” – the description his previous coach at Sale, Steve Diamond, used and was important for Australian rugby officials to consider when opting to take another punt on him – said enough was enough.
“I’m not going to lie, I came back as a centre and I played in the World Cup and it did frustrate me because I couldn’t get my awe,” he said.
“I felt like I wasn’t involved as much as I would have liked because you want to go out there knowing that you’ve done the job. So I went back to the drawing board with one of my coaches and we sat down and chatted, ‘how can I take my game forward?’ and if the opportunity came up to step up at 10 (I was going to take it) and funnily enough after round one in Super Rugby that opportunity came, and it was still a big learning curve because I hadn’t played 10 in six years and I was learning on the run.”
O’Connor was one of a number who came under-fire for his role in the Wallabies’ 27-7 defeat at Eden Park.
He missed the tackle on Jack Goodhue that resulted in Aaron Smith scoring one phase later.
And even though he struggled in the final couple of minutes making two a passing and handling error, as well as two poor kicks in either half which gave the All Blacks opportunities to counter, O’Connor did contribute to a side that continually threatened their opponents on New Zealand soil.
So O’Connor wasn’t wrong when he said all hope wasn’t lost.
“You’re never going to win a Test match when you make that many missed tackles,” he said.
“We created a lot of opportunities in attack, but we threw the ball away a lot and also just the balance of the kick-pass-run ratio wasn’t balanced quite as well as I would have liked. There were a lot of positives and we’ve taken quite a bit out of that game.”
That hope goes on the line on Saturday.
There’s no room for error.
But regardless of which way the result goes, O’Connor won’t run away from Australian rugby like he did seven years ago.
'EXPECTATION TO WIN': Rennie not 'scared' to make changes for Bledisloe III
'WE NEED MORE KURTLEY BEALES': What the Wallabies are missing out by not having more Indigenous stars