Former Wallaby James O’Connor will make his long-awaited return to Australian rugby almost immediately after reportedly signing a new deal with the Queensland Reds.
While the deal is yet to be officially confirmed, Fox Sports have reported the 28-year-old will make his return to the Reds next Super Rugby season, making him eligible to play for the Wallabies straight away.
It’s expected that national coach Michael Cheika will bring him into the squad for the opening Rugby Championship match against South Africa on July 21.
If selected, it will be a very short turnaround for O’Connor, with the squad being announced this week then flying out to South Africa a couple of days later.
O’Connor’s return to the Reds marks the first time he has played Super Rugby since his one-year stint with the same club in 2015, when he returned from Toulon in search of a World Cup berth that same year. After failing to make the squad, he was released from his two-year contract after just the first season.
His decision this time around to leave the Sale Sharks after two seasons follows a very similar suit, as the 28-year-old hopes to push his way into the World Cup equation later this year.
Despite debuting as the second-youngest Wallay in history, he still only has the one World Cup under his belt, having earned his first Test cap one year after the 2007 tournament, then missing the final squad for the aforementioned 2015 Cup. He last played for the Wallabies in 2013.
The signing is a boost for the Reds, who were eager to cover the departure of captain Samu Kerevi to Japanese rugby.
While Kerevi’s absence at the Reds opens up a huge opportunity for O’Connor in the centres, where he’s been playing with Sale, the same can’t be said for his Wallabies chances. Kerevi is still available to take his expected spot in the starting XV for the World Cup, leaving O’Connor wrestling for positions elsewhere in the backline, or simply trying to pocket a bench spot.
The upcoming Rugby Championship is shaping up to be the litmus test for his return to the fold, with Chieka expected to play around with combinations and lineups in preparation for the Cup in Septemeber.
If O’Connor fails to make it though, he does have plans elsewhere in the Australian setup, having initially shown interest in a run at the Australian Sevens side for the Olympics next year.
The 44-Test utility was originally in talks with Sevens coach Tim Walsh earlier in the year about joining the fray for the World Rugby Sevens Series and a chance to join the Olympic team in Tokyo, an option that is still very much on the table if he fails to reach his goals for the 15-man game.
Regardless of which national side he ends up representing over the next nine months, it’s a win for Australian Rugby in a time where players are leaving left, right and centre.