Rugby Union

License article

Excuses have run out for O'Connor

It was only a matter of weeks ago that James O'Connor was standing in a foyer at Brisbane's Hilton Hotel speaking about the chat that saved his career. Ewen McKenzie, he said, had put him on the straight and narrow.

This was a cathartic moment for a young man to whom the notion of consequence was largely abstract. Now, the young Queenslander had a new and genuine appreciation of the privileged position he was in and was determined not to let it slip away.

Until he did. Now James O'Connor, the one-time golden child of Australian rugby on a contract that would have made Lance Franklin blush, has been cut loose. He is without a Wallaby jumper, without a Super Rugby side and professionally, at least, without many friends.

"I play better when I'm having fun and if I'm not having fun, what's the point?" O'Connor told me before the Brisbane Test against the Springboks. "I'm in a very privileged position to play rugby for a living and I dreamed of doing this since I was six years old."

With the ARU deciding not to offer O'Connor a contract for 2014, that dream is on shaky ground. There is time for a u-turn; the Nudgee old boy is still just 23. But those who have spent time around O'Connor believe a serious attitude adjustment needs to take place before bridges can be mended.

Questions about O'Connor's commitment to the team – any team – aren't new. When a number of senior players at the Western Force were told he was leaving, nobody offered a protest. The only surprising factor about his exit from the west was that it didn't happen sooner.


It was a similar case at the Rebels, with Scott Higginbotham saying O'Connor's exit simply "had to happen". The team came first and O'Connor wasn't buying into the big picture.

Now in the aftermath of his exclusion from the Wallabies by coach Ewen McKenzie, the ARU has seen enough at long last. Privately, plenty of high profile figures in Australian rugby wondered whether the governing body had the courage to pull the trigger. That they finally cut his funding has been largely applauded.

O'Connor has been a perplexing figure for Australian rugby since he first shaped as a serious player while still a teenager. But despite the obvious talent and mountains of hype, the output has never really matched the fat contract.

Despite all of his critics, Quade Cooper can lay claim to an outstanding season in 2011, when the Reds swept to the Super Rugby crown. Kurtley Beale, too, has been a player of influence, helping the Waratahs to the decider from flyhalf when he was 19.

And O'Connor? His win-loss record at both the Force and the Rebels doesn't make for particularly pretty reading, a factor both franchises no doubt considered when deciding whether to persist with his services given the off-field distractions.

O'Connor had been on a contract that added up to close to $800,000 when you count Wallaby appearances, top-ups and franchise payments. That's the sort of money, in other codes, reserved for the elite; special players who make an average team a winning team.

It has all been far too much, far too soon, and those that have turned a blind eye to the mounting list of transgressions must shoulder some of the blame. Australian rugby had crossed its fingers and naively wished for a superstar.

JOC spoke a wonderful game and could work the room like an expert. Was he genuine? On occasion, yes. On others, it was hard to walk away feeling like you had anything resembling a real discussion, with the infamous press conference about the French fight "Exhibit A".

How O'Connor finds a way back into the Australian game is anyone's guess. There's no doubt he has precious few allies in high places, with many leading figures in the game believing he is a chronic maker of excuses that refuses to seriously acknowledge his role in this mess.

He has been quoted as saying he knows he "stuffed up" but it has all been heard before. Until he can show the kind of honest appetite for reform that his good friend Quade Cooper has done, the sceptics will be out in force.

Perhaps the most damning of all for O'Connor will be if the Wallabies can manage to turn things around in his absence. If that's the case, the young superstar many had pencilled in to be the future heart of a champion side will learn about life as just another footballer trying to rise through the ranks.

It will hurt. But it's likely to be the best thing that's ever happened to him.


Comment are now closed