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Excuses have run out for O'Connor

James O'Connor - a wasted Wallabies talent

James O'Connor - a wasted Wallabies talent Photo: Mark Kolbe

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.

10 comments

  • You are right, there is no way O'Connor should have been paid that amount so early in his rugby career.

    The pedestrian and moribund ARU has finally acted - no doubt after much strident criticism from senior and ex-players having some cred. and McKenzie's recent action.

    O'Connor is a kid. He is grossly lacking in maturity and self-obsessed. You only have to witness him in action on a Friday night out in Brisbane. Too obsessed with his image amongst 18 year old private school girls rather than the privilege of representing his nation at such a high level.

    Actually there are a few more Wallabies, who I wonder, might benefit from a pay cut. Some of them seem to have an entitlement mentality when it comes to playing for the Wallabies.

    Commenter
    PO
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    October 04, 2013, 9:10AM
    • A good analysis Mr Queensland.

      Commenter
      YoYo
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      October 04, 2013, 9:46AM
      • Unfortunately, family or friends have been telling JOC for such a long time that he is better than everyone else. Therefore, his mindset is that he doesn't have to answer to anyone except himself and because he is so good, and others will just excuse his behaviour. There is a huge degree of self confidence and a self belief that maybe are good on the field but others find hard to work with off the pitch, especially when transgressions go unpunished. If he played in NZ he would have been banished to lower grades and told to pull his head in long ago.

        Commenter
        JB
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        October 04, 2013, 10:31AM
        • You mean like Julian Savea ?

          Commenter
          johnny-boy
          Date and time
          October 04, 2013, 1:23PM
        • Johnny-Boy - Savea fronted the NZRFU & his team mates told them what he did & that he was in the wrong. He also made this clear in the media. He didn't laugh it off & keep doing the same stupid things. Apples & Oranges.

          Commenter
          Shane D
          Location
          Perth
          Date and time
          October 04, 2013, 3:18PM
        • No like Zack Guilford

          Commenter
          Oclee62
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          October 04, 2013, 3:29PM
      • Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, James OConnor. All super talented and super protected. Told by everyone around them that the rules of normalcy dont apply to them. Look what havppened to each of them... They eventually got caught out.
        This is a lesson from every up and coming star, the higher you climb, the longer the drop.

        Commenter
        DDH
        Date and time
        October 04, 2013, 11:16AM
        • and james o'connor belongs alongside michael jackson and tiger woods? in what universe. fevola, ferguson, carney, dugan, miles and a few more league players are worthy comparisons

          Commenter
          hellsy
          Date and time
          October 06, 2013, 7:59AM
      • JOC has never had, nor will he ever have the brains to inspire and lead a team to victory. It's just not in his make-up. He is simply not a leader because he doesn't command respect through getting his hands dirty and grinding a way to victory. I know it's an old adage, but there is no 'I' in 'team' and for JOC, it's all 'I, I, I'. Oh and perhaps we should come to terms with the fact that he is not of a calibre that even closely matches his counterparts in NZ or SA. They have something in spades that he does not - a work ethic.

        Commenter
        DP
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        October 04, 2013, 12:11PM
        • Didn't the ARU cut Quade loose, or pretend to, then 3 months later have a change of heart, give him a $400k top-up, and make him one of the highest paid players in the country?

          Commenter
          Hugh Briss
          Location
          Gold Coast
          Date and time
          October 05, 2013, 6:57AM
          Comments are now closed

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