So, rugby’s worst-kept secret is officially out. One of Australia’s infamous Generation Y members, James O’Connor, has chosen the somewhat less than glamorous surroundings of London Irish to play out the opening months of his international exile.
It’s a move altogether incongruous with the Wallaby starlet’s image. A string of off-field incidents led to O’Connor being banished first from his Super Rugby franchise, the Melbourne Rebels, and then his national squad. There were plenty who claimed that his axing was not before time, and that the new-age breed of Australian rugby icons (Generation Y, as they are known) was in need of a major shock to their communal system.
The self-styled “Three Amigos” – O’Connor and fellow Wallabies Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale – were split up. First, by virtue of Cooper’s prompt dropping by then coach Robbie Deans after the fly-half labelled the environment in the national camp as “toxic”, live on television. Beale’s struggles with alcohol are well-documented, and O’Connor, too, seems unable to keep himself free from trouble and the limelight. (More on those troubles, and the eventful past of the Amigos, here)
It is a travesty that three of world rugby’s greatest talents are blighted by such poor collective attitudes, lack of respect for their team-mates, and questionable choices away from the field of play. Cooper, to his credit, seems to have reversed his fortunes both on and off the pitch, and looks to be re-establishing himself in the green and gold. But for now, O’Connor remains cast adrift in the international high seas; the captain of his cerebral vessel slowly awakening from a lengthy spell drunk at the wheel.
So, with the rugby globe his oyster and the potential for a seriously lucrative move to France, why has O’Connor opted for the Premiership and London Irish? It may be that the more illustrious English sides had used up most of their financial clout with their summer dealings, but even so, and with the greatest respect to Irish and their fans, the Madejski is hardly a likely destination for one of such high calibre.
Some have, in fact, questioned the wisdom of a known party-animal heading for the hustle and bustle of the UK capital. Will he stray yet again from the straight and narrow? Wallaby legend David Campese Tweeted on Monday: “The last thing JOC (O’Connor) needs is a move to London? Party, party, party? Go to a town and play.” Campese is famed for his ill-advised social networking outbursts, but he makes an interesting point here. Would a more tranquil change of scene not be better-suited to a man who so often seems to fall foul of the big-city nightlife?
In any event, Australia coach Ewen McKenzie made it clear this week that O’Connor would not feature for the Wallabies unless he was strutting his stuff at domestic level within the confines of his native land. That was not unexpected, but the more thorny issue of where best to utilise the 23-year-old and his undoubted abilities continues to niggle.
Does McKenzie see O’Connor as a fly-half? Almost certainly not. After Deans tried and failed to shoehorn the play-maker into the pivot role when the British and Irish Lions came calling, he hasn’t featured there since. With the return of Cooper to test-match form, and Brumby Matt Toomua also preferred in the number ten jersey, O’Connor played out the Rugby Championship on the wing – a spot most feel should be his primary position.
Of course, it could be that Irish Director of Rugby Brian Smith takes a different view, and opts to trust his newest recruit with the first-receiver role. Will the tighter, physical exchanges in the Premiership stand him in good stead for his inevitable return to the wide expanses of Super Rugby? Will a spell running the show in such an abrasive league improve his game management? Will he finally banish the demons that have halted what should – and may yet prove to be – a glittering test-match career? With the 2015 World Cup looming ever-closer on the horizon, and ever-larger on the minds of players and national coaches alike, the James O’Connor saga is far from over.
By Jamie Lyall – Follow Jamie on Twitter @JLyall93
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images