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'A tough gig': Aussie playmaker close to signing on dotted line

SPOTLIGHT: The Queensland Reds are closing in on a deal to retain James O’Connor, who wants to remain at Ballymore and be the mentor he never had access to as rugby’s prodigal son.

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The versatile back is off contract and will almost certainly fall off Rugby Australia’s top-up list if he opts to play on for the Reds or another domestic outfit.

There is growing depth in the Reds’ halves and centres, with Lawson Creighton and Tom Lynagh sharing the No.10 this year and Josh Flook emerging alongside Isaac Henry and Taj Annan to complement Test talent Hunter Paisami.

The 32-year-old O’Connor made his Test debut when he was 18 but was axed by the Wallabies last year and is seemingly not in new coach Eddie Jones’ World Cup plans.

The Western Force, where O’Connor debuted as a freakish 17-year-old, are reportedly circling.

But O’Connor, back in form as a No.12 this season, has struck a tight bond with Creighton and sees the value in a mentoring role that would have benefited him during a rollercoaster career.

Contract talks are well underway, the Reds keen to find room for O’Connor given his experience, versatility and leadership displayed since returning for a second stint at the club in 2019.

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Back then there were queries over his professionalism after a series of off-field mishaps.

But he answered them all, captaining the side to a Super Rugby AU title in 2021 and scoring every point in the final.

“It’s been cool; he came here a few years ago, it was a tough gig. It’s a good story where he’s at,” said coach Brad Thorn, who finishes his role this season.

“There’s lots of things that should happen in life … that’s a nice story [if O’Connor does retire at the Reds].

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“Life can roll out different stories, though.”

O’Connor [concussion] will miss Friday’s home game against the Blues, Flook and Annan to combine in the centres with Paisami [knee] still at least three weeks from a return.

Blues captain Dalton Papalii [suspended] will miss the trip while fellow All Blacks Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke, Finlay Christie and Ofa Tuungafasi have been rested.

The Blues still boast Beauden Barrett in the No.10, Patrick Tuipulotu as skipper, Hoskins Sotutu at No.8 and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on the bench ahead of his NRL return next season.

The Reds are seventh, six points clear of the Fijian Drua and likely needing one win in their final three regular-season games to secure a finals berth.

Fresh off their first win in New Zealand for a decade, dual international Thorn said he’d given little thought to the prospect that Friday could be his last time coaching or playing at Suncorp Stadium.

“I don’t feel any great weight come off or anything,” he said of his decision not to seek a new deal.

“It’s the type of animal I am, I’m just looking to compete, to win … a bit ruthless with my mindset.

“You don’t want to be a [finals] participator, you want to be a competitor.”

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