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McKenzie puts O'Connor on the straight and narrow

Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie with Matt Toomua and James O'Connor.

Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie with Matt Toomua and James O'Connor. Photo: Matt King

James O'Connor says a candid, no-holds-barred conversation with Ewen McKenzie has put him on the path to rugby redemption, with the Wallaby winger admitting he has struggled with life in the spotlight.

The 23-year-old believes it will be actions, rather than words, that eventually help him win back the respect of the Australian rugby community after a long list of indiscretions, topped off by his dumping from Super Rugby side Melbourne.

But a typically forthright discussion with McKenzie will be the keystone of any significant and lasting attitude adjustment, with O'Connor saying he remains thankful to the new Wallaby coach for laying it on the table in his first days in charge.

O'Connor said he didn't know what to expect in his first one-on-one chat with McKenzie, particularly with team discipline one of the most-pressing topics for the new gaffer.

If there was any cause for nerves, McKenzie put him to rest with the kind of upfront, no-nonsense discussion that made him such a favourite among players during his four years in charge of the Queensland Reds.

"I just went in with an open mind and I was ready for any situation. That's what he did as well. He put faith in me. I don't want to say exactly what he said, because that's between us, but he showed faith in me and said 'produce what you do best and we'll go from there'," O'Connor said.

"You're in the spotlight all the time and you have to be aware of that. It becomes part of the job. In the past, I haven't dealt with that as well as I should have.

"Communicaton is a massive key, I guess. Straight away from our first meeting until now, he's been very open and upfront and it's working well. He's been very upfront with me from the very beginning, from our first conversation after the Lions.

"I'm looking forward to many more years hopefully."

Talk remains cheap in the eyes of many observers and even team-mates, which is why O'Connor has become determined to gradually right the wrongs of the past as he finds his feet on the Wallaby wing.

"The situation where I was at, words weren't enough. It was actions. I'm trying to do the little things right and move forward. But it's a long process and a mindset shift. It's not a big one but little things get blown out easily," he said.

O'Connor didn't ask to be the Wallaby 10 against the British and Irish Lions but relished the challenge when thrown the jumper by former coach Robbie Deans. The experiment produced lukewarm results, even if O'Connor showed improvement with each outing.

But after some early defensive wobbles in his move back to the wing, O'Connor is starting to have fun on the field once again. His running game and sparkling feet have long been his best asset and he is hoping to use his skills to full effect against the Boks.

"I play better when I'm having fun and if I'm not having fun, what's the point? I'm in a very priveleged position to play rugby for a living and I dreamed of doing this since I was six years old," O'Connor said.

"You don't lose it but in certain games, you aren't having as much fun as others, that's for sure. I enjoy being around people and I thrive off other guys' energy.

"I grew up playing rugby because I love to run. It's refreshing to know where you are going to be playing so you can really provide the best service for the boys and for Australia."

The pressure to win is becoming oppressive for the Wallabies, who have saluted just once in their past five Tests, while McKenzie will be keen to notch up a quick single to get off the mark at Suncorp Stadium.

But the feeling among Wallaby players remains positive, even if the results are yet to come. The fact senior players are finding a way to mend bridges with players like O'Connor and Quade Cooper have only helped the overall mood.

O'Connor's mindset will be helped even further when he manages to lock down a Super Rugby club for next season. He insists he is staying in Australia, wants to remain a Wallaby and a deal with the ARU is around the corner.

"All of my contracts have been a little bit drawn out. I trust the people around me. We had a good chat last week and things are progressing really well with the Australian Rugby Union. I hope it's close," O'Connor said.

8 comments

  • Time to join the grown ups James O'Connor. You might like to run, but passing to a team mate in a better position is just as much fun. And tackling doesn't really hurt, try it sometime.

    An article about the bridge building from the senior players to the party boys would be much interesting than another sycophantic puff piece like this.

    Commenter
    YoYo
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    September 03, 2013, 6:54PM
    • Keeping O'Connor on the wing gives fans confidence.

      Only one step over the sideline and the problem is fixed.

      Commenter
      J. Fraser
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      September 04, 2013, 8:56AM
  • O'Connor is a serious weak link in the Wallaby's side. He is a very overrated player and sadly over time has been led to believe he is a much better player than he is.

    Commenter
    angus58
    Date and time
    September 03, 2013, 7:57PM
    • I feel as if Link picked Toomua for the games he "knew" we wouldn't win so there wouldn't be too much whinging when be brought Cooper back. Let's see what happens. My tip is Tight 5 remains unchanged, Mowen moves back to 6 and Schatz comes in to 8, Fardy back to bench. Pity, as I believe Fardy has a lot more to offer than Simmons. QC will be a straight swap with Toomua. Not sure what will happen with Mogg. He might get one more game or he might go out altogether. He's not really a bench player.
      A big problem for a lot of these Brumbies guys is that they haven't been around the Wallaby set-up. It's all a very steep learning curve and we certainly haven't seen the best of them yet.
      We know what QC has to offer and I would really like to see Foley get a crack some time. He is the most complete but least experienced of the three #10s and could be an absolute star.
      Hopefully JOC will remember how and where to tackle some time soon. He's been caught out of position so many times it just isn't funny.
      Our biggest problem is the front row and while I'm not much of a fan of the two starters the best open side is out of favour and the best tightie is injured. Choices are limited. We need some real development effort - Scott Sio can't do it on his own.
      Any which way, I wish the lads all the best against the Bokke.

      Commenter
      Chris
      Location
      Kiama
      Date and time
      September 03, 2013, 9:38PM
      • Good to see a positive article about redemption and taking responsibility. Good on you James don't let the naysayers win , now get out there and rip in.

        Commenter
        Manjusri
        Date and time
        September 03, 2013, 10:55PM
        • Is he going to the Force next year?

          Commenter
          logophile
          Location
          Portland, OR
          Date and time
          September 04, 2013, 2:09AM
          • James, you're a fine rugby player but I hope you learn to be modest off and less selfish on the field. And make the right choices. Think before you act off the field. Grabbing a burger at 4am is not thinking.
            I hope you turn it around because I hate seeing talent screwing it up.

            Commenter
            AB's fan living in oz
            Date and time
            September 04, 2013, 7:46AM
            • These sort of articles and the KB debacle at the Rebels puts into question Robbie Deans' judgement in giving the Amigos the number of chances that they had without fully calling them to account....

              Commenter
              Mikka
              Date and time
              September 05, 2013, 8:35AM
              Comments are now closed

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