James O'Connor's release by the Rebels has left him in the wilderness and he'll need to clean up his act if he's to be hot property again.
James O'Connor's release by the Rebels has left the Wallaby pivot in the wilderness and he'll need to clean up his act if he's to become hot property once more.
In the build-up to the current Super Rugby season, a Melbourne paper said that the talk surrounding the Rebels' upcoming campaign could be summed up in five words: James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale.
Such was the excitement surrounding “two of the most exciting talents in the game”, that there was belief that the struggling franchise could spring into life. It's fair to say things didn't go according to plan.
While Beale is in Sydney continuing his rehabilitation for alcohol-related issues, O'Connor has returned to AAMI Park ahead of the Rebels' final match of the season, but not before it was announced on Sunday that the playmaker's services would not be required beyond the current campaign. It's unclear if the news broke before or after O'Connor had returned home from a Kings Cross nightspot where he had been spotted at 3:50am just hours after losing the deciding Test to the British and Irish Lions. Perhaps he was bracing himself for the official announcement…
The Rebels' decision to part company with O'Connor marks a substantial fall from grace for a player who has been a highly coveted asset in the past. However, that is the nature of the game; big names boasting even bigger salaries come and go, particularly when they have under-performed (indeed, the Rebels have at times played better without O'Connor than with him), but it is the comments made by Rebels skipper Scott Higginbotham that indicate how much more there is to the story.
“No one questions his playing ability. It was more a selection issue and how the club felt he fitted into the team dynamic,” Higginbotham said of O'Connor's departure. It's not often that a player is called out for having a toxic personality and certainly not by a fellow Wallaby.
Beale and the final member of the 'Three Amigos', Quade Cooper, have found themselves on the wrong end of the law due to their inability to control themselves while out on the town and while O'Connor has managed to keep his nose clean in this respect it's important to note he often at the scene of the crime.
But there is a big difference between staying on the right side of the law and the right side of your team-mates. After being photographed at 4am in the week of the second Test against the Lions, O'Connor is reported to have delivered a rather blasÃ© apology to the Australian squad that was not well received, especially by senior members of the squad who have grown tired of his antics.
All this begs the question – what next for the prodigious talent? For all his skills, O'Connor seems to have a negative impact on those around him – or is at least susceptible to any bad influence – and if this is the case, what team would be willing to risk the utility player infecting their team culture?
It's this team culture that is growing more and more important in Australia as many of the country's sports teams struggle with young stars unable to shed their immaturity, stay out of trouble and focus on their careers.
AFL outfit the Sydney Swans instituted the ''Bloods Culture'' (in other circles known as the “no dickheads policy”), which has a heavy focus on player responsibility and accountability, and where discipline is handed down by the players and not the management, with much success over the last decade. The culture is credited for why the Swans often perform significantly better than their roster suggests they will. It's a philosophy that is growing and don't be surprised to see it full-fledged in rugby union teams soon.
It's here that O'Connor will either have to shape up or ship out. There is no room for a man who cares more about his own brand than that of the team. But we're getting a bit ahead of the game, O'Connor still has time to turn things around.
Where this will happen is not an easy question to answer.
The Force have indicated they may be willing to re-sign O'Connor, but whether the player is quite ready to head back to Perth with his tail between his legs remains to be seen. The Brumbies are unlikely to consider O'Connor and he would not fit in Michael Chieka's new era at the Waratahs. A move home to Queensland doesn't look too promising either, with Cooper at number ten and Richard Graham surely keen to stamp his authority on matters rather than risk inviting a toxic influence into the squad. A move overseas is not out of the question and perhaps it is out of the comfort zone of Australia that O'Connor will thrive. Perhaps what he needs most – wherever it may be – is a senior player with the strength of character to manage him and the professionalism to guide him to step in and show him the way.
Regardless of where O'Connor heads next, what is clear is that if he continues on this path he is likely to be remembered as a prima donna whose own ego was the biggest obstacle to greatness.