VIDEO: Wallaby coach heaps praise on O'Connor
REACTION: Perhaps he didn’t give the Wallabies the winning drop-goal against the All Blacks, but James O’Connor still earned high praise from his coach Dave Rennie.
The former “bad boy” of Aussie rugby wrote another chapter in his story with a stand-out performance in their 16-all Bledisloe Cup draw in Wellington on Sunday.
The 30-year-old has been shunned by the Wallaby selectors for most of the last seven years and hasn’t worn the no.10 jersey since 2013 in the final B&I Lions test in Sydney but after a stellar Super Rugby AU season he was rewarded with it and he certainly didn’t let Dave Rennie down.
Playing with Nic White inside him at scrummie O’Connor kept the All Black defence constantly guessing with his footwork and deft passing game.
He set up Aussie’s first try with a superb long pass out to Marika Koroibete who blazed his way over the tryline and this was the spark that started their come-back from being 3-13 down.
Suddenly we witnessed shades of 2011 when he stepped up in the 73rd minute to slot a penalty – at the same venue where he kicked a penalty to give the Aussies an 11-9 win in the World Cup quarterfinal sending the Springboks home after their torrid encounter with referee Bryce Williams.
However, this time the opponents were able level the game and hang on for a draw but it sure wasn’t from a lack of effort from the Wallabies.
Rennie who had hoped to give Aussies new “wunderkind” Noah Lolesio his debut simply couldn’t bring himself to take O’Connor off, such was the level of his play and of course it may have been match suicide sending on the debutant with that tight a scoreline.
“I thought Rabs [O’Connor] was excellent,” Rennie said.
“I thought he controlled the game really well.
“It would have been nice if he’d got a better ball to slot a drop goal late but I think he’s going well.”
O’Connor made his international debut at the tender 18 – with his maternal Grandparents being South African, his parents being Kiwi’s and he being born in Australia meant he could have chosen to represent any of those three country but it was always Australia where his heart was.
Sadly he went off the rails in those younger years and was best known for this exploits off the field rather than on.
O’Connor decided to put himself in Wallaby exile and left for Europe in 2013. Europe has been good for him as it not only helped him turn his life around but flicked the “on” switch for his game again and he was in the form of his life on his return to Australia last year.
Due to this he’s been welcomed back into the Wallaby fold with open arms.
“I’ve been really impressed with him – he’s really matured and is very comfortable in his own skin,” Rennie said.
“He understands our game and he’s driven and very disciplined and so he’s made great shifts.”
He returned to test rugby last year for the first time and immediately commented on how it was STILL an honour to pull on the golden jumper again.
“I’ve reflected on where I’ve come from in the last five or so years and I won’t forget what it felt like to be out and then coming back into the light,” O’Connor said.
“I vocalised it earlier in the year that I did run away from that 10 jersey after the Lions series and I feel like I did stunt my evolution as a player and a person so to be able to go out there and be my truth and play the way I was born to play, was very fulfilling.
“I’m proud of myself.”
Long may you continue James – Wallaby rugby needs you.