James O'Connor looks to rebuild his career in England
Troubled Australian star looks to rebuild his career and reputation in northern hemisphere after running out of options Down Under
Discarded Australia back James O'Connor has decided to quit rugby Down Under and seek a fresh start in England, but he hopes to return next year and break back into the Wallabies side for the 2015 World Cup.
O'Connor, who was released from his Australian Rugby Union (ARU) contract earlier this month after being escorted by police from Perth airport, ended talks with his former club Western Force yesterday.
After a string of disciplinary lapses, the Perth-based Force were the sole Australian Super Rugby team interested in O'Connor, but the talented 23-year-old told them he would seek greener pastures.
"It was the toughest decision I've ever made," he said. "I've spent the last month or so at home on the Gold Coast with my family and friends and have done some soul searching.
"I've just realised that I need to get away from everything and be my own man. I've got a lot of support structures here that it's easy for me to rely on so going over there will be a fresh start."
While he has been widely pilloried for describing himself as a "brand" after leaving the Force in 2011, O'Connor denied his move abroad was all about money. "If I was chasing money it's a lot more lucrative in Japan and France," he said. "England's going to be tough rugby and it's going to be good for me off the field. It's going to be a tough challenge, being by myself, but I think I can really learn a lot and I'm also really excited by the rugby."
O'Connor said he hoped to return to Australia in May, but his failure to sign with a local Super Rugby side has effectively ruled him out of selection for the Wallabies in 2014, despite hopes the wayward talent might be rehabilitated.
The ARU only allows players who commit to provincial rugby at home to be picked for national duty, though the governing body has previously finessed that rule.
O'Connor conceded the move was a gamble, but said he had the support of Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie and Force coach Bernard Foley.
"Obviously they would have liked me to have stayed in Australia, but they can see where I'm coming from with this decision," he added.
"It will end up being an advantage if I can master the northern hemisphere style of game."
The move caps a stunning fall from grace for O'Connor, who was the starting flyhalf during the British & Irish Lions series, but was cut adrift by the ARU earlier this month after the Perth airport incident.
He was refused access to a flight to Bali because airline staff said he was intoxicated.
That was the final straw for O'Connor, who had been on thin ice following disciplinary breaches during the Lions tour, including being photographed at a fast food restaurant in the early hours of the morning with teammate Kurtley Beale days before the second test.
After the Lions series, he was sensationally dumped by the Melbourne Rebels after two injury-plagued seasons.
Only his old club Force were prepared to offer him a lifeline, despite being angered by his demands for "key performance indicators" to be fulfilled during negotiations over a new contract in 2011.