Australia's O'Connor finds World Cup road to redemption

Urayasu (Japan) (AFP) –


Once hailed as the "Golden Boy" of Australian rugby, utility back James O'Connor went through the mill but found redemption just in time for the Rugby World Cup.

O'Connor will earn his 50th cap when he runs out against Wales on Sunday but admitted he did not expect to wear the Green and Gold again after a string of off-field scandals.

"No, I didn't think I would play for Australia again. I wanted to, but I didn't think that would be a reality," said O'Connor, 29, who spent six years in the wilderness when Rugby Australia tore up his contract.

O'Connor can play almost anywhere in the back line and was a prodigious talent -- the youngest to play Super Rugby at the age of 17 and the second-youngest to pull on the Wallabies jersey a year later.

A ruptured spleen nearly killed him at 16 and he faced years of battling depression, addiction and injury problems.

The powers-that-be in Australia finally lost patience with O'Connor in 2013 when the then-23-year-old was prevented from boarding a flight from Perth to Bali because he was drunk.

Forced to look elsewhere, O'Connor went to Europe where he plied his trade for London Irish, then Toulon but his off-field troubles did not stop there.

He was arrested and fined in Paris during a cocaine bust and became persona non grata also in France.

On the pitch, he was hampered by an injury to his left ankle that meant he could only train once a week and had to inject himself with a local anaesthetic to get through matches.

English premiership outfit Sale Sharks gave him another shot in 2017 and he began his long road to recovery.

The troubled player revealed last year that he had faced his demons at a retreat in Iceland which used sensory deprivation, heat exhaustion and deep states of meditation.

"I just want to open up, have fun and play. I think that is the keyword for me, play," said O'Connor.

"When I am enjoying it, I am fighting for myself and playing my best rugby for the team."

- 'Far too many scars' -

Coach Michael Cheika was prepared to let the phoenix rise from the flames, picking him for the Rugby Championship game against New Zealand in Perth that the Wallabies sensationally won 47-26.

Cheika said at the time that O'Connor's long lay-off would work in Australia's favour as opponents would not be familiar with his game.

And his current teammates in Japan have given the reformed O'Connor the thumbs-up.

Attack coach Shaun Berne said the player had a clean slate.

"I didn't know him before -- I just see a bloke that wants to play for the team and with the team.

"My experience is the new James O'Connor and he is just so willing to adapt to any role I give him. He is willing to move on different plays, be flexible with his role. I think he has been great, a good team man."

Scrum-half Will Genia said O'Connor had been "exceptional" at the World Cup in 2011 when he played mainly on the wing.

Moving to the centre, he has helped the team with his ball-playing skills as well as his mazy running, Genia said.

"He's come a long way, it's good to him see performing on the biggest stage of them all," said the scrum-half.

O'Connor himself has vowed to be "just there in the moment and enjoy it", and the former playboy brushed the attentions of a Japanese television channel that voted him in the top three best-looking players:

"I've got far too many scars all over my face."