When he subbed in for center Tevita Kuridrani against Argentina in Brisbane in July, O'Connor made his first appearance for Australia in five years, 10 months, 13 days. He started the next test against New Zealand, the one the Wallabies scored a record 47 points in. Two weeks later he was in Australia's Rugby World Cup squad. On Sunday, he's facing Wales in Tokyo.
"I didn't think I would play for Australia again," he says, not smiling for once. "I wanted to, but I didn't think that would be a reality." O'Connor's first stint with Australia was as a meteor; the coming of the light, awesome brilliance, and fade out.
He made his Super Rugby and test debut in 2008, becoming the second youngest Wallaby. The following year, he became the first Wallaby to score three tries in his first start in the starting XV. There were even better starry nights. In 2010, he converted his own try deep in injury time in Hong Kong for the Wallabies to end a 10-match losing streak to New Zealand, and a 29-point haul against France in Paris made him, at 20, the second youngest player to 100 test points after Jonny Wilkinson.
The kid whose looks were compared with Justin Bieber was soaring. Then began missteps, put down to the vagaries of youth. It emerged he was in a drunken fight with Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale before the test against France.
In 2011, he missed the Rugby World Cup squad announcement and photo. The Wallabies said he overslept. Domestic media reported he was seen at several bars the night before the announcement. His punishment was missing a test against New Zealand in Brisbane, and missing Australia clinching its first Tri-Nations title in a decade.
On good behavior at the World Cup in New Zealand, he was a star. His late penalty ended South Africa's title defense in the quarterfinals. The Wallabies finished third and O'Connor was the second-highest scorer overall. He, Cooper, and Digby Ioane were hailed as Australia's new vanguard. Only Cooper made it to the 2015 World Cup.
A lacerated liver and injuries ruled O'Connor out of the 2012 tests. When the British and Irish Lions arrived in 2013, he was the flyhalf by default because Cooper was out of favor and Beale had off-field issues.
Despite the Lions being his first test in 19 months, and first start at flyhalf, O'Connor oozed confidence. The Queenslander with a New Zealand childhood had returned home to nurse his rugby talent, starting at flyhalf, and became so good that he could excel at center, wing and fullback. But the Lions were a step up too soon for O'Connor.
A photo of him and Beale with a Lions fan at a fast food outlet at 4 a.m. before the second test drew heavy criticism, but the last straw was his being refused permission to board a flight to Indonesia because he was intoxicated. New coach Ewen McKenzie suspended him partway through the Rugby Championship for the rest of 2013, and Australia said it wouldn't give him another rich contract for 2014.
O'Connor headed overseas. He returned home to try and make the 2015 World Cup but in vain, and then went back overseas. While he was away, the rules changed, allowing Australians overseas to be picked again. In July, Michael Cheika invited him to just train with the Wallabies and the coach and his staff liked what they saw.
"I didn't know him before, I just see a bloke that wants to play for the team and with the team," attack coach Shaun Berne says. "My experience is the new James O'Connor, and he is just so willing to adapt to any role I give him. He is willing to move on different plays, be flexible with his role. I think he has been great, a good team man."
O'Connor says, "I haven't trained like this ever. I just want to open up, have fun and play. I think that is the keyword for me, play — not try to do anything, not try to be anything, just be there in the moment and enjoy it. When I am enjoying it, I am fighting for myself and playing my best rugby for the team."
David Pocock was at the Western Force when O'Connor debuted for them at 17 in 2008. "He obviously had some pretty tough personal circumstances, he's fairly honest about it," Pocock says. "It was a fairly long road with a couple of false starts trying to get back. Just to see someone go away, really do their work, and turn up with a new perspective on life, a new way of seeing opportunities and wanting to make the most of them is really exciting."
Scrumhalf Will Genia, another who has played with O'Connor Part I and II, agrees. "He was a winger, explosive back then. Now at 13, he's not only a ball-runner but he plays as a bit of a ball-player as well," Genia says.
"He's a great threat for us all over the park. It's good to see him actually perform again on the biggest stage of them all." After starting at center against Fiji last weekend in his first World Cup match in eight years, O'Connor was buzzing.
"It was everything I expected, I thoroughly enjoyed it," O'Connor says. Hence the perpetual grins before another start at center against Wales on Sunday. "Two years ago I started rebuilding myself," he says. "I have had some pretty serious injuries, lost my love for the game, but I am finding my purpose again, and I am stoked to be here. I can't wait for Wales."
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