‘Didn’t get to give best version of me’: O’Connor reveals lasting Wallabies ambition after realising errors of his ways


James O’Connor was burning himself out trying to prove he’d shed his reputation as rugby’s bad boy.

But the Queensland Reds playmaker says everything changed when he realised nobody was asking him to be perfect.

Now 33, O’Connor has shelved retirement plans and would love another Wallabies chance after a knee injury last year ended any hopes of a last-minute World Cup call-up.

O’Connor returned to Australian rugby in 2019 on a promise to behave after a string of off-field scandals burnt bridges and interrupted a Test career that began when he was 18.

“It was a lot of pressure when I first came back, because of my past,” he told AAP. “I wanted to be doing everything right and saying the right thing all the time.

“It’s quite draining and I realised what I was doing, nobody was asking for. I realised being authentic is important, because people feel it.”

O’Connor took on the Queensland captaincy in 2021 and led the Reds to the Super Rugby AU title but said he was “burnt out and mentally drained” before injuries hit.

His last Test was in a horror loss to Argentina in 2022, with O’Connor then on the periphery as an Australia A and Barbarians tourist in France waiting for new coach Eddie Jones to call.

A knee injury ended any hopes of that, but O’Connor said the “beautiful” rugby the Barbarians played and a new coaching staff at the Reds had helped reinvigorate him.

“I’m not calling it, playing wise,” O’Connor, who is on a one-year deal, said.  “I’d love to finish my career here. I don’t feel like I’m slowing down.

“That Baa-Baas tour was beautiful for me; I found joy in footy, it was so freeing.”

The dream of featuring in a second British and Irish Lions tour when they visit next year remains, as does the desire to finish his international career on better terms.

James O’Connor. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

“I didn’t feel I played badly in that Argentina Test,” he said. “(But) I didn’t get to give my best version of me to that Wallabies jersey. 

“I was just existing in that system. The way we played didn’t suit me.

“And I didn’t have a loud enough voice to be, ‘I don’t play like this or understand what you’re trying to do’.”

He’ll line up at either five-eighth or inside centre under Les Kiss this season, the Reds promising to promote attacking rugby that should give O’Connor a platform to shine in front of new Wallabies coach Joe Schmidt.

“If I’m good enough and playing well enough, of course I’d love to wear )the Wallabies shirt) again, but it’s so far from my mind right now,” O’Connor said.

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