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Once-in-a-generation O'Connor is a loss to Australian rugby

(AAP Image/Dan Peled)
Expert
14th October, 2015
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9241 Reads

The news that James O’Connor had been released by the Reds and was heading back to Europe brought back a taste of the venom that has tainted Australian rugby for a decade.

Now that the Wallabies have recovered their mojo and are flying high, it seems ancient history, but mere mention of the name O’Connor brings the ill-feeling flooding back. Social media feeds were once again clogged with the special sort of nameless nastiness that goes with the territory.

“Missed out on the World Cup squad so heading back to the big money”; “I am sorry but I have no fond memories of that poorly behaved prick” and “The bloke has no ticker… I hope he never comes back”.

Judging by the vitriol, you’d think that James O’Connor was a drug cheat, a match fixer or had a case of the Hopoates, but he was none of these. In fact, it’s important to note here that James O’Connor has never been charged by police, busted for drugs, used a prohibited substance, been done for domestic violence, or pissed in his own mouth.

His crime? Simply put, to all outward appearances, he’s been fairly well up himself, and has not been entirely respectful to the Wallaby jersey. The question is whether these are hard indicators of plain bad character, or pointers to another kind of emotional or mental fragility.

In reality, there are very few genuinely damaged characters, and James O’Connor isn’t one of them. He’s done some stupid stuff sure, but pretty much all born out of either anger management (Perth airport, Adam Thompson and the Spring Tour scrap), or poor impulse control (Hungry Jacks at 4am).

It is easy, nay attractive, to write the guy off. But it is also unfair. Often the explanation is one step past the obvious.

So he took the Wallaby jersey for granted? How could one not, when you were parachuted into the Australian Sevens team straight out of Australian Schoolboys and played your first Test at 18 years old?

Imagine never having fought your way through club ranks to Super Rugby and beyond. It is no wonder that the Wallabies didn’t feel much different to a school First XV.

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Impossible for us mere mortals to imagine, but it happens. Even the great – and now universally forgiven – Matt Giteau has admitted that he only realised what he had once it was gone.

“I realise the importance and position I was in, the privilege I had, which I took for granted.” said Giteau.

In any case, the assumption is that James O’Connor actually likes playing rugby. And that shouldn’t be a given. Just because it’s an obvious choice for a prodigy, doesn’t mean they want to do it. In many cases it’s a trap. The social and peer pressure to make something of a gift, can be suffocating.

Recall Will and his buddy Chuckie talking about Will’s mathematical genius in Good Will Hunting.

“Will: Oh, come on! Why is it always this, I mean, I fuckin’ owe it to myself to do this? What if I don’t want to?

Chuckie: Alright. No. No no. Fuck you. You don’t owe it to yourself. You owe it to me. ‘Cause tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be fifty and I’ll still be doing this shit. And that’s all right, that’s fine. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in.”

It’s useful to imagine O’Connor as the Good Will Hunting of rugby. It’s hard to believe, but what if one didn’t want to be a Wallaby?

What if you just wanted to play rugby on weekends for fun? What if you didn’t want the pressure? What if you felt railroaded into that career choice? What if other people were relying on you for their own fulfilment?

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It is a bit easier to understand why someone might behave badly. The problem is, when someone is pressured into a law career, and then walks away to become an artist, we applaud them for self-realisation. But we never stop to imagine that someone might not want to play for the Wallabies for a living.

“So don’t take the contract then” say the commenters on the forums, to which I say, let he who has never succumbed to peer, agent or family pressure, cast the first stone.

As for the selectors, just imagine, for a moment, if you will, being so good that the selectors themselves beg you to turn out. As I say, it is hard for us mortals to imagine, but it happens.

Whatever the underlying issues, there is no question about one thing, and that is that James O’Connor remains the most incredible talent of his generation. He has been more physical and complete than Quade Cooper, and a mile more consistent than Kurtley Beale. Of the three, O’Connor is easily the best Test player.

He has hardly played a bad game at Test level. His worst displays were at flyhalf against the British Lions. He should never have been picked there of course. It was a bad combination of a poor selection from coach Robbie Deans, misguided optimism from O’Connor himself, and the fiendish difficulty of playing 10 well at Test level.

Remember that even the great Tim Horan, Australia’s greatest post-war back, was just adequate as a flyhalf. It is not an easy position to play. O’Connor thought he could do it, but shouldn’t have had the chance to find out.

Aside from that, he was generally sublime. Even the haters couldn’t argue with his ridiculous rugby talent.

Witness his “perfect game” against the Springboks in 2011. His Bledisloe Cup heroics in 2010, scoring the winning try and kicking the goal after time to win the match. His three-try Test debut against Italy. The highlights will tie you to YouTube for an hour.

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Typical commentary included this gushing enthusiasm as O’Connor was about win an All Blacks Test for the Wallabies…

”O’Connor, twenty years of age, has stepped inside two and smashed the ball down… (Who’s going to take this kick?)… May as well give it to O’Connor! Why not?… he does not care about the pressure. He has ice in his veins this kid. Honestly, he can sidestep, he can run through people.”

The author of the above line was an excited Greg Martin, the acerbic great-to-be-an-Australian-but-better-to-be-a-Queenslander pundit.

Martin decided this week that he didn’t like O’Connor anymore, especially once he had ended his Reds stint, saying that he was the “Justin Bieber of Australian rugby’ and further, was an “immature waster of talent the Queensland Reds are better off without”.

The views are at odds with comments from Brian Smith following O’Connor’s time at London Irish.

“Since the age of 18 he’s lived in a goldfish bowl in Australia. He’s been the golden-haired boy and everyone’s made comments on his every move. Not every young bloke makes all the right moves but, since he’s been here [in London], he hasn’t put a foot out of line,” Smith said.

Even bona-fide Wallaby legend Matt Giteau, O’Connor’s teammate at his next club Toulon, was convinced O’Connor was a changed man.

“For me he went through that experience where he wasn’t wanted really by any of the Super Rugby clubs, and that would centre anyone and bring them back down.”

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“That hunger is back for him, and as a bloke he has matured enormously. He gelled with the group really well, he trained hard and applied himself really hard. I was really impressed with him.”

Unfortunately, O’Connor’s desperate bid for a World Cup spot unravelled at the Reds. Playing with a serious undiagnosed knee injury, under a poor coach, in a losing team, it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t make it back to his best.

What is also a shame is that O’Connor wasn’t able to play under Michael Cheika. There is little doubt that the tough, honest Cheika would have brought out O’Connor’s best character and best rugby. Witness Kurtley Beale, flaky and dysfunctional under Deans and McKenzie, now in form and back at his best under Cheika.

It’s easy to write James O’Connor off. But underneath it all, he’s just a good kid who has behaved badly. Like any kid, when they’re behaving badly is when they most need an arm round their shoulders. It isn’t clear that O’Connor has ever had the right sort of guidance.

Brian Smith thought that given the opportunity, O’Connor would play 100 Tests for the Wallabies. Let’s hope that sometime, somewhere in the future, he fights for that chance. His talent, at least, is once-in-a-generation.

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