James O'Connor's future in limbo
July 7, 2013
James O'Connor is surplus to requirements in Melbourne © Getty Images
James O'Connor's playing future in Australia is under a cloud after Melbourne Rebels on Sunday opted not to offer him a Super Rugby contract for 2014. The Rebels' shock decision comes as a major blow to the playmaker less than 24 hours after the O'Connor-guided Wallabies crashed to a 41-16 series-deciding loss to the British & Irish Lions in the third Test in Sydney.
"After three years in [Super Rugby], the club is entering the next phase of development," Rebels chief executive Rob Clarke said while complimenting O'Connor for his contribution to the club over the past two years.
"I am very confident in our player recruitment strategies, which continue to identify some excellent emerging talent. This group will provide the platform for continual improvement, both on and off the field.
Clarke also paid tribute to other departing players, and the positive impact they have had on the Rebels as the club continues to build a sustainable winning culture.
"Our foundation Rebels Gareth Delve, Ged Robinson, along with retiring players Nic Henderson and Tim Davidson, will all depart the club this year, leaving a lasting imprint on the Victorian Rugby community," Clarke said.
"We pay tribute to all our departing players and our 2013 Rebels team at AAMI Park on June 12, hopefully capping off our most successful season in our short history."
O'Connor, 22, struggled with injuries during his two-season stint in Melbourne while repeatedly finding himself in off-field strife, most recently when he was out with Rebels and Wallabies team-mate Kurtley Beale at a fast food outlet at 4am days before the second Test against the Lions at Etihad Stadium.
James O'Connor and Robbie Deans are each looking at an uncertain future © Getty Images
O'Connor had long coveted the Wallabies' No.10 jumper, but he was left on Saturday night pleading his case to remain in the Test team "anywhere" after besieged coach Robbie Deans' experiment with him as playmaker backfired against the Lions. Deans' future was always going to hinge on the performance of the overhauled backline with O'Connor calling the shots at five-eighth, but the move failed in the 2-1 series defeat. O'Connor improved throughout the series, and he was one of Australia's better players in the 41-16 third Test loss, scoring their only try with a superb jinking run, but it was apparent from the outset that his elusive ball-running game was better suited on the wing or inside centre as he struggled to take the correct options as chief playmaker.
The Rebels star probably sealed his fate in Melbourne with his continued ill-discipline off the field, and showing a lack of remorse after his early-morning burger run with Beale. And he is unlikely to be selected again at No.10 for Australia with Deans' days in charge coming rapidly to an end; potential successors Jake White and Ewen McKenzie will not stand for the lax off-field standards that have seen senior players ropeable and wanting action taken. McKenzie would sweep his Queensland Reds playmaker, Quade Cooper, back into the Test No.10 jumper, while White would be more likely to team Brumbies playmakers Matt Tooma and Christian Lealiifano.
O'Connor played down his own desire to wear the gold No.10 jersey after the four-tries-to-one loss to the Lions, possibly knowing that the imminent change in coach could spell doom for his own immediate Test future. "I've said I want to play 10 but I just want to be part of the team," he said. "I want to be on that field. I'll play wherever I can. I would like to nut down a position, maybe 10, maybe somewhere else. I can look myself in the mirror and say I gave my best shot for Australia."
Deans delivered minor but rare criticism of O'Connor after the first Test less than a fortnight ago, but the praised the playmaker's game after the Lions forwards had dominated the decider at ANZ Stadium. "There wouldn't be a player in the world that would have thrived," the coach said of O'Connor. "I thought under the circumstances he did really well."
James O'Connor was among the better Wallabies in the third Test (video available only in Australia)