Super Rugby
This is my last chance: James O'Connor
Sam Bruce
January 6, 2015
James O'Connor is finally back 'home' in Queensland © Image Supplied: Queensland Rugby Union

James O'Connor insists he is a far more mature rugby player to the one who left Australia in disgrace nearly 18 months ago, and he is confident he can deliver in his Super Rugby homecoming at Queensland Reds.

The former wild child of Australian rugby fronted the media for the first time as a Reds player on Tuesday, saying his time at London Irish and Toulon had helped him improve - both on and off the field. The 24-year-old utility was quick to admit he was on tenterhooks in Australian rugby before he hailed the overseas experience, saying the time away had given him a fresh perspective on life.

"Yeah, definitely," O'Connor replied when asked whether this was his last chance Down Under. "I've gone away and I've made some really positive steps. On the rugby field, I think I've trained harder than I've probably ever have before and mixed it with some really talented players that have a mindset; it's pretty incredible the way they sort of think about the game.

"But as a person as well, I think I've made some good momentum and it's no doubt the Reds have a really strong contingent here and they're a very tight group. And, for me, it's just about coming in and mixing with the guys, and so far it feels pretty good; it's an exciting time."

O'Connor left Australian rugby with little respect after an early-morning incident at Perth airport proved the final straw, the ARU tearing up his contract after a long list of off-field indiscretions. Greg Growden wrote at the time, in an extraordinarily well received open letter to O'Connor, that "your career is on the line, if it goes the wrong way, it will be a gross waste." and now it seems the argument over a flight has turned out to be a career turning point with the player revealing he needed to take a step back to realise the error of his ways.

"I made mistakes," he said. "It probably took me six months when I was away to come to an understanding, take a step back; it didn't initially hit me. My goal was to go away, improve as a rugby player and, you know, I met a lot of people, a lot of good people, and I think it just brushed off on me. And I think to be honest, it's the best move I've done.

James O'Connor has faced the media for the first time as a Queensland Reds player, Super Rugby, Ballymore, Brisbane, January 6, 2015
James O'Connor looks set for a spot on the wing at the Reds © Image Supplied: Queensland Rugby Union

"I'd like to say, I'd like to feel I'm in a different headspace. It's just a lot of little things, and I think balance is a big part of it. But, yeah, mindset is huge … I moved away from the safety of my family, my friends; it was tough being out by myself, meeting a whole different group of people and, to be honest, all the clubs were very welcoming. It was a tough transition, but once you sort of get that understanding ... of where you went wrong it all became pretty clear to me how I could come back on track; and it was just by working hard and doing the little things right."

O'Connor, a proud Queenslander, was signed straight out of school by Western Force before a decision to better his "rugby brand" saw him join Melbourne Rebels in 2012. The 44-Test back parted from the Force on poor terms but O'Connor insisted there was no bad blood between himself and Reds coach Richard Graham, who was at the helm of the Force during his inglorious exit.

"A lot of my best memories were being coached by Richard, not only at the Wallabies but also at the Force," he said. "I think we do have quite a dynamic where we push each other and he definitely made me a better player. It's a good relationship.

After stints in the rugby outposts of Perth and Melbourne, O'Connor said it was great to be back in his home state and to feel the Queensland "passion".

"It feels good [to put on the Reds jersey], I guess being a Queensland boy growing up here, I always wore the Queensland jersey. I might have been playing rugby league, but I saw that passion. Even when you go away from home, over in France or the UK, when [State of] Origin's on or there's a rivalry [like] Tahs verse Queensland … I've got red blood.

"From before I left it's always been in the back of my mind. I grew up [in Queensland], I played at Nudgee College and that was always the step I wanted to take. Obviously it didn't work out that way, but, before I left, I always said I wanted to come back and really be in a successful Super franchise."

The Reds have a great chance to add to their title success of 2011 with code-hopper Karmichael Hunt and former All Blacks back-rower Adam Thomson joining O'Connor on the roster for 2015. O'Connor looks set to form part of an exciting back three alongside Hunt, giving playmakers Will Genia and Quade Cooper plenty to work with out wide.

"Yeah, I trained with him [Hunt] on Friday; he's definitely got flare. He's definitely got the Midas touch. But I think he's just a level-head; he's obviously played rugby before but his background at league at the back, it's quite a similar role … I'm not saying it's [the transition] going to be easy for him, but in a sense I think he'll fit in pretty easily."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Sam Bruce is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum in Australia and New Zealand

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