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James O'Connor may have opened the sabbatical door for Australian rugby players

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When James O'Connor returns, as seems likely, to Australian rugby, espousing the benefits of a European rugby experience, European holidays and a glamour stint with the European champions in the south of France, players and agents thus far shooed away from pursuing sabbaticals will be punching the ARU's digits into their phones to seek a fresh round of negotiations.

Of course, O'Connor's experience does not set a direct precedent for sabbaticals – on account of O'Connor's misdemeanours let's call his a sabbadical – but a devil's advocate might suggest it certainly shares some of its characteristics.

He has been away for a short period (if, for example, he pulls on a Reds jersey in February 2015, that's a year and six months after his most recent appearance for the Wallabies), it has been a period of enrichment, (certainly experience-wise and possibly financially given his coming stint with Toulon) and, crucially, the door has never been closed on his return (both the player and Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie have been fairly open about keeping that door open).

Burst: James O’Connor in London Irish colours.

Burst: James O’Connor in London Irish colours. Photo: Getty Images

Put yourself in O'Connor's thongs during this northern hemisphere summer. He's probably been sipping cocktails on a Mediterranean beach with a short-term contract from Mourad Boudjellal stuffed down his budgies while he finalises a deal with Australia's wealthiest and best-supported Super Rugby franchise. He is not exactly suffering the privations of the Count of Monte Cristo while away from his homeland. Indeed, Australian peers grinding their way through the later stages of Super Rugby are probably thinking, "If this is what exile looks like, when does the next boat leave and from which quay?"

Why would McKenzie and the Reds want O'Connor back? Think back to O'Connor's try against the British and Irish Lions Test in the third Test in Sydney last year and forget about the number on his back. The balance, the determination, the ability to shift his body weight off both feet – if you asked him he probably wouldn't have a clue how he navigates his way through such close traffic, it's pure instinct. If he is going to be used as a winger, only Henry Speight (and the departing Alofa Alofa – gone too soon) offer that sort of footwork.

And that's not the only attraction. When O'Connor joined London Irish last year he was promptly handed the kicking tee and and brought up 100 points in 14 games for a struggling side that finished 10th out of 12 in the English Premiership.

In the Wallabies jersey O'Connor is one of only a few who has really delivered when the real pressure came on. The World Cup quarter-final against South Africa in 2011 will be always be remembered for a barely believable performance by David Pocock, but it was O'Connor who kept the Boks at bay on the scoreboard with his penalties.

Take those two factors alone and overlay them over the current Super Rugby table, where a few wins here and there instead of close losses, as the Reds have suffered, dramatically changes the landscape. There will always be a market for what O'Connor can bring to the field, and coaches will always back themselves to be the ones that can turn around talent with some baggage.

Witness Danny Cipriani in New Zealand last month. That was a very different character wearing the England shirt again to the one that left Australia. Even hard judges would have to admit that he took his limited chances well for England in their four-game tour, particularly in the midweek game when he pulled the Crusaders' defence this way and that.

It would come as no surprise then, if a place for has been found for O'Connor in Brisbane, nor would it if the ARU start paying him directly again in the form of Test payments as soon as next June. But his return may make the hard line on sabbacticals the ARU has been pushing that little bit easier to challenge.

6 comments so far

  • O'Connors talent is not disputed.
    His behaviour certainly left a lot to be desired during his stints in super rugby.
    His blatant disregard of protocol and not bothering to turn up for the team photo prior to the last World Cup should not be treated lightly when considering any contract for this wayward athlete.
    I for one will be really disappointed if he plays here next super season and even more so if he is selected for the Wallabies.
    What message does that send to every player behaving and busting the balls for their franchises in 2014?
    Furthermore it reinforces the message that players who have serious talent can do as they wish without fear of any meaningful punishment.
    When you wear a Wallaby jersey you are an ambassador for both the game and the country,
    THATS IMPORTANT.

    Commenter
    Circling Buzzard
    Location
    Fremantle
    Date and time
    July 03, 2014, 10:47PM
    • There is no surprise that a place has been found for O'Connor at the Reds . They need him and they have always wanted him , so much so that they have gone to extraordinary lengths to get him cheaply .
      He was ridiculed by McKenzie and the Reds Brigade when Deans tried him at ten , he was given the " aren't you a naughty boy " treatment .
      Which as you point out , has hardly been purgatory . We have no idea if his behaviour or his attitude has changed , but he will now have the support of all the press from QLD . Waaaine will have new found adulation , and the rest will fall into line . Andy the pirate will find a place for him in his ANZAC side along side Simmons , Slipper and after last week probably Horwill and Davies .
      No doubt about them , duds all season , a win against the Rebs and suddenly they are all the news .

      Commenter
      Mankad
      Location
      The Bush
      Date and time
      July 04, 2014, 7:04AM
      • "When O'Connor joined London Irish last year he was promptly handed the kicking tee and and brought up 100 points in 14 games for a struggling side that finished 10th out of 12"

        Quite apart from the fact that his average points per game for London Irish is just over 7 (for comparison, Dan Carter's current test average is 14.4) and therefore hardly stellar, one thing hasn't changed - scoring the bulk of the points for a struggling team is entirely consistent with performances for Force, Rebels and dare I say it the Wallabies during his time in the team. Only a short time Toulon to prove he can make a positive contribution in a top side before back to the Reds - I still think they are mad...

        Commenter
        gromit
        Location
        Perth
        Date and time
        July 04, 2014, 3:25PM
        • His talent is over rated. He isn't an intelligent enough player to be a quality 10, Deans gave him the chance to try that and he never cut the mustard. He is too fragile to be a centre. Too soft under the high ball and lacking defensive ability to be a top fullback. That leaves wing. How loud do you think Savea would laugh at the prospect of being marked by pretty boy little O'Connor. In club footy in Europe he can make some nice coin and provide a few flashes hear and there like Giteau. At test level for the Wallabies he is not adequate unless Mckenzie is happy to run last in the big games. If the Reds get him and have another dud season despite having Cooper and O'Connor then the penny must drop that some players may have style but at the top level they are found out for a lack of substance.

          Commenter
          Carl
          Date and time
          July 04, 2014, 4:03PM
          • Todd Carney didn't change his spots.

            Neither will JOC

            Commenter
            PH
            Date and time
            July 06, 2014, 5:53PM
            • "James O'Connor may have opened the sabbatical door." I'm presuming Sabbatical is the name of a new trendy bar?

              Commenter
              Jim
              Date and time
              July 07, 2014, 7:58AM

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