MELBOURNE, Oct 23 (Reuters) - James O‘Connor’s rapid fall from Australian rugby’s pinup boy to national outcast reached its nadir on Wednesday when the utility back announced he was shopping himself around England for a short-term deal.
Supremely talented and capable of playing any backline position, 23-year-old O‘Connor should have little trouble finding a willing northern hemisphere partner to offset part of the huge paycut he suffered when the ARU tore up his contract earlier this month.
Breaking his way back into the Wallabies may prove a bigger ask, however, after blotting his copybook one too many times with off-field lapses.
Among the many transgressions O‘Connor notched on his way to 44 Wallabies caps, one of the most egregious in the minds of local rugby writers was his description of himself as a “brand”.
However true the observation, it came at a sensitive time after he he had just burnt bridges with Western Force, the club that handed him his Super Rugby debut as a precocious 17-year-old.
O‘Connor walked out on the Force to take a lucrative contract with Melbourne Rebels leaving behind officials angered after demanding the Perth club fulfil “key performance indicators”.
The episode gave impressions of a player who thought himself above the game, and for a time it seemed Australia’s coaching staff were willing to indulge the notion, too.
Boasting an array of endorsement deals, O‘Connor’s brand as a wholesome athlete with sublime skills and telegenic looks brushed uneasily with his close friendships with fellow Wallabies backs Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper.
Dubbed the “Three Amigos”, the trio shared an ability to both thrill rugby crowds and dismay team management with their off-field exploits.
O‘Connor infamously missed a function and a team photograph after the Wallabies squad for the 2011 World Cup, having slept through it.
His nocturnal habits burnt him badly during the recent British and Irish Lions tour when he was photographed with Beale at a fast food restaurant at 4 a.m. just days before the second test match.
Although dressed down by then-coach Robbie Deans, O‘Connor was retained as starting flyhalf for the Melbourne match but missed a bus to training the following week before the series-deciding loss in Sydney, infuriating senior team mates.
Where Deans appeared reluctant to punish one of his finest, the Rebels promptly dumped their marquee player after two injury-plagued seasons in which O‘Connor played comparatively few games but sported many haircuts.
Brand tarnished, three of Australia’s four Super Rugby teams ruled themselves out of picking him up, but new Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie retained him in his Rugby Championship squad.
Despite describing himself rehabilitated, O‘Connor was marched out of Perth airport by police following Australia’s home win over Argentina, barred from boarding a flight to go on holiday after airline staff said he was intoxicated.
A move back to Western Force, which came attached with strict behavioural conditions, would have thrown O‘Connor a Super Rugby lifeline and a ticket back to Wallabies selection, but the player ended negotiations with the Perth club on Wednesday, saying he needed a fresh start.
His exile robs McKenzie of a proven match-winner but gives O‘Connor a break from the glare of a spotlight that once shone kindly on him.
“I want to find some balance and I think going over there I can grow as a person and also refresh rugby-wise,” he said.
“I’ve just realised that I need to get away from everything and be my own man.” (Editing by John O‘Brien)