MELBOURNE (Reuters) - James O’Connor had to wait seven years and three coaching changes for a second crack at the Wallabies’ number 10 jersey but made a strong case to keep it after an assured performance against the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup on Sunday.
The one-time rugby bad boy enjoyed glowing reviews in Australian media following the epic 16-16 draw, which he ended by booting the ball out nearly nine minutes after the final siren as the match stretched into injury time.
O’Connor slotted only two of his five shots at goal in the wild Wellington weather and was unable to find the ball to conjure a match-winning drop goal in the frenzied final minutes of the first Bledisloe Cup clash in the four-test series.
But it was by far the 30-year-old’s best outing for the Wallabies since returning to the fold last year under former coach Michael Cheika.
“To be fair, I guess for me it’s just an honour to be back in the gold jersey,” O’Connor told reporters.
“I had a big, sort of, reflection ... of where I’ve come from the last five years and I won’t forget what it felt like being out (of the Wallabies) and then coming back into the light.”
The number 10 has been worn with distinction by a procession of Wallabies greats, including Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh and Stephen Larkham.
For O’Connor, until Sunday it was a burden he carried long after relinquishing the jersey following the 2013 British & Irish Lions tour.
Former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans unveiled O’Connor as his new number 10 before that series, thrusting the then-22-year-old into the spotlight nearly five years after his test debut.
O’Connor handled the attention poorly, and was photographed on a 4am fast food run with team mate Kurtley Beale in the lead-up to the second test.
The day after the Wallabies lost the series, O’Connor missed a team meeting where a departing Deans said goodbye to the players.
Months later, O’Connor’s contract was torn up following a drunken dispute with staff at Perth airport.
“I vocalised it earlier in the year that I did run away from that 10 jersey after the Lions series,” O’Connor said.
“To be able to go out there and just be my truth and just play the way I guess I was born to play is very fulfilling and freeing, so I’m proud in a way of myself as well.”
O’Connor’s return to the Wallabies last year was a surprise for some fans with memories of the cocky youth who burned bridges across the country.
He was the player who ditched Western Force, the Super Rugby team that launched his career, to join the Melbourne Rebels in 2012 and explained the move as doing “what’s right for (his) brand.”
“Brand O’Connor” plunged after the Lions series and all but disappeared while playing in Europe during his long exile from Australian rugby.
Back on home soil, his stock has risen. It continued its upward trajectory this year with a strong Super Rugby AU tournament at Brad Thorn’s Queensland Reds.
New Wallabies boss Dave Rennie, a New Zealander like Deans and Thorn, had little doubt O’Connor had earned the right to wear the 10 jersey for his first match in charge.
Rennie, O’Connor and the Wallabies will be under pressure to build on the performance in Wellington when they face the All Blacks in game two of the Bledisloe Cup at Eden Park on Sunday.
“The guys just want to learn, they just want to keep growing,” said O’Connor.
“This is only the beginning. There’s a lot more to come.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing Ken Ferris
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