MELBOURNE, July 17 (Reuters) - Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn, who froze out two of his players for drug problems, asked “hard questions” of James O’Connor before welcoming him back to the Super Rugby team.
The former New Zealand hatchet man Thorn, known for his uncompromising approach to team discipline at the Reds, cut former Wallabies James Slipper and Karmichael Hunt adrift last season after both had brushes with cocaine.
O’Connor, whose Wallabies contract was torn up in 2013 over repeated discipline lapses, was arrested for cocaine possession in Paris two years ago and was released by French club Toulon soon after.
While needing a replacement at inside centre following Samu Kerevi’s departure, Thorn admitted to having reservations about bringing the 29-year-old O’Connor back to the Reds, four years after an injury-blighted one-season stint.
“His name came up, Rugby Australia and James had been in discussion and if he was to come back he was real interested in being back in his home state in Queensland,” Thorn told reporters in Brisbane on Thursday.
“Initially I was thinking ‘oh’.
“I’ve never met James outside of playing against him and he was a good footballer but perhaps hadn’t heard the best reports in the past.
“But I decided to meet him with my coaches and it was a good meeting.”
O’Connor was released from his contract early by English club Sale Sharks but left with the side’s good wishes after two seasons without generating negative headlines.
Despite that, local media have reported that O’Connor’s contract has “unprecedented” behavioural clauses.
Thorn, however, said he felt reassured after he and his staff put the player through a proper grilling.
“Probably the thing that impressed me about him the most was he didn’t shy away from hard questions,” said Thorn.
“Pretty direct questions and had a chat with him — there was no shuffling or anything.
“It was ‘yep, this was where it was at, this is how things were, I’ve learned some hard lessons,’ I guess.”
O’Connor has already joined the Wallabies squad in South Africa and is now eligible to be selected for the opening match against the Springboks at Ellis Park on Saturday.
Prop Slipper, who was stood down by the Reds last year after testing positive for cocaine twice, is also back in the Wallabies frame nearly three years after his last test.
Thorn said he could see a positive redemption story developing around O’Connor, who has been effusive in thanking Australian rugby for giving him another chance since returning to the national fold.
“It can be a really good story,” Thorn said. “We all want to see someone reach their potential with their football but more importantly as people, as young men.
“I sense there’s a hunger there to put that jersey on and do the business.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Greg Stutchbury