London dinner kick-started O’Connor’s possible homecoming

James O'Connor's potential homecoming was hatched over pasta in a London restaurant two months ago.

The Australian men's sevens coach, Tim Walsh, and former Wallabies forward Stephen Hoiles met O'Connor in an Italian restaurant in Kensington in May to formalise a bold pitch.

In contact with him since late March, they wanted O'Connor, once Australian rugby's problem child and now ensconced in the UK's Premiership Rugby competition, to come home.

He would stage a bid for World Cup inclusion and by December be training with the sevens squad in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics.


By the end of the meal – pasta for Walsh, something less 'carby' for O'Connor – the seed had been planted. The Sale utility, who played 44 Tests for Australia before leaving in a haze of ignominy in 2013, was officially keen for a second crack at coming home.

"We were looking for ball-players who can play centre," Walsh said.

Tim Walsh has big ambitions for player development in Australia.

Tim Walsh has big ambitions for player development in Australia. Credit:AAP

"Hes got a fantastic defence, his speed is world class, his kicking game speaks for itself and the age and experience he can add to the squad – there's real value there."

The conversation has since expanded to include the Queensland Reds, who need someone to replace departing No.12s Samu Kerevi and Duncan Paiu'aua, and the Wallabies.

Coach Michael Cheika made it known he was open to O'Connor joining this week's Wallabies training camp but that – in line with Rugby Australia's eligibility requirements – he had to have signed a deal to return.

As of Monday night that had not happened. Where the sevens plan was at was also unclear, but there was no doubt O'Connor had earned Walsh and Hoiles's respect.

Ben O'Donnell is one of Australia's top men's sevens players.

Ben O'Donnell is one of Australia's top men's sevens players. Credit:Rugby Australia/Karen Watson.

"Probably like most clubs or franchises, we were looking at James's colourful past too," Walsh said.

"I was very sceptical at the start but in the three months that weve been talking I've observed that he is very self-aware, very mature, and has taken real accountability of the past, who he is and who he was. Ive certainly been impressed.

"He is one of the most talented rugby players Australia has produced in the past decade, that was evidenced by being the second-youngest player to debut for Australia when he played his first Test in 2008.

"Once he got the mRead More – Source

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