Super Rugby AU: Wallabies star James O’Connor set to re-sign with Rugby Australia through to 2023 Rugby World Cup
James O’Connor has won over Australian rugby, now he’s set to be rewarded.
The prodigal son of Australian rugby returned home on a two-and-a-half-year deal ahead of the 2019 World Cup on a fraction of his true value.
He did so because he wanted to fulfil his potential and wear the Wallabies jersey.
After his botched comeback in 2015, he sacrificed an estimated $500,000 to return to the Reds in a deal that was contributed to by Rugby Australia.
Now the 30-year-old is in conversations to stay at the Reds and is set to earn a significant top-up that will keep the playmaker in Australia until the 2023 World Cup.
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As well as being the crucial final piece of the Reds’ roster, O’Connor will be tasked with mentoring the next generation of playmakers.
The Reds are set to welcome Tom Lynagh – the son of famous Wallaby, Michael – from England later this year and have Brisbane Boys’ College schoolboy prodigy Taj Annan coming through the system too.
If they develop like the Reds have under O’Connor’s leadership during the past two months, the Reds and Australian rugby will be indebted to the former ‘golden boy’ who debuted for the Wallabies aged 18.
And who is to say he’ll stop there?
Ireland’s captain and playmaker Johnny Sexton is almost 36, while Dan Carter won the World Cup as a 33-year-old.
The 55-Test Wallaby will be 33 at the next World Cup and with the British and Irish Lions set to tour Australia in 2025, you wouldn’t rule him out of wearing the No.10 jersey he surprisingly wore under Robbie Deans in 2013.
On Tuesday, O’Connor said he was back to feeling the best he physically has since leaving for Europe midway through the last decade.
“When I was in Europe I had a lingering ankle injury for a good 3-4 years,” O’Connor said.
“So I was playing heavier, 12 and 13 over there and it’s a power game. I was sitting at 95kg and my game was based on solid defence and attacking the line and being able to run a short ball and pull the ball out the back.
“Now I’m playing 10 I need to be able to cover more space and look for second touches.
“When I came back the emphasis was on getting my leg speed back, which we’ve worked pretty hard on, and I feel like I’ve got my footwork back.”
In the modern game, with rush defences being implemented globally, speed is more critical than ever before.
What makes All Blacks playmakers Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga the world’s biggest threats are their vision, skills and, crucially too, their speed.
“It’s just what I’m doing on field and the confidence for me to take players on one-on-one again,” O’Connor added.
“So not just be a ball-player or see a gap and run through, but take someone on one-one-one, use my footwork and be able to create for someone else as well.”
Under O’Connor, the Reds are undefeated from seven matches and last Saturday locked up top spot on the Super Rugby AU standings to book their first home final next month since 2011.
He will hand the captaincy back to Liam Wright when the Reds take on the Force on April 23.
But the former bad boy of Australian rugby said the captaincy had helped develop him as a player.
“A big part of my growth moving to 10 was that I had to learn to serve the team before myself, and captaincy is another level,” he said.
“It’s not just on the field, it’s a lot of the stuff off the field so a lot of the moving parts are coming together correctly and utilising a lot of other leaders in your team who are also natural leaders, who can bring the best out of different groups and different nationalities and also just different unit groups.”
The Wallabies’ 40-man training squad broke up on Tuesday afternoon after coming together for a brief camp ahead of July’s series against France.
While O’Connor still was nursing some sore ribs after being hit late off the ball by Brumbies lock Darcy Swain, the playmaker said there were no hard feelings in camp and said the no-prisoners approach was being encouraged.
“I’ve still got a bit of a hip pointer, bruise there,” he said
“I love it, I want my men to be doing that.
“Like when we come up against the Kiwis or come together as a national team, you want pressure on their quarterback. As you saw in that first Test when Harry Wilson and those guys got into Mo’unga, that’s perfect.
“So when they’re coming at me, I’m enjoying it.”