Troubled O’Connor released from ARU contract
SYDNEY (AP) — James O’Connor has been released from his contract with the Australian Rugby Union after a string of off-field problems and won’t be allowed to play for the Wallabies again until he proves he’s worthy of wearing the gold jersey.
The ARU issued a statement Thursday saying it had granted O’Connor an early release from his 2013 contract and would not offer him a new one for 2014. O’Connor doesn’t have a Super Rugby contract, either, after being released by the Melbourne Rebels at the end of last season.
So if he can’t agree terms for a return to the Western Force, the talented but troubled utility back will have to move abroad to continue his professional career.
The ARU finally ran out of patience with the 23-year-old O’Connor after he was reportedly escorted from the Perth airport terminal by police after arguing with airline staff while trying to board a flight to Bali, Indonesia, with his girlfriend last month. The incident occurred a few hours after Australia’s 14-13 win over Argentina in Perth — the Wallabies’ only win so far in the 2013 Rugby Championship — and led to coach Ewen McKenzie suspending him indefinitely from the national team.
O’Connor told News Corp. newspapers on Thursday that he and the ARU had “mutually agreed to put the past behind us.”
“I want to apologize for any issues that I have caused and I want express my respect for my teammates, the Wallabies and the jumper,” he was quoted as saying. “I remain focused on earning my place back with the Wallabies and will be looking for the right opportunity to do this.
“I realize I need to earn back a lot of respect, and that is exactly what I plan to do both on and off the field.”
O’Connor has played 44 tests after making his international debut as a teenager, but has never cemented himself in one position and has played primarily on the wing as well as stints at fullback, flyhalf and center.
ARU chief executive Bill Pulver said releasing O’Connor from his national contract didn’t preclude the utility back from playing Super Rugby in Australia, or of winning back his spot with the Wallabies.
“If James chooses to stay in Australia and play Super Rugby, he would be eligible to play for the Wallabies in 2014, as long as his behavior was consistent with our expectations and if his form warranted selection,” Pulver said. “We appreciate James’ contribution to Australian rugby and his unique skill and flair when playing, but have determined that James must make some changes with respect to his off-field responsibilities.”
Pulver said O’Connor hade enormous potential and hoped he “sees this as an opportunity to re-focus his attitude and invest in all aspects of his professional rugby career.”
O’Connor was heavily criticized after being photographed with teammate Kurtley Beale and a British fan at a fast-food outlet at 4 a.m. just three days before Australia’s second test against the British and Irish Lions in June. In a petulant statement after Australia’s series-leveling win in that test, O’Connor said he had learned from the incident and wanted to put it behind him.
O’Connor, who was a controversial selection at flyhalf for the series, and Beale then allegedly missed the team bus to training on the day before the deciding third test against the Lions in Sydney the following week. The Wallabies lost the series 2-1.
Nathan Sharpe, who was a former teammate and captain of O’Connor’s at the Western Force and Australia, later admitted in a newspaper interview that other players were fed up with the young utility player’s off-field behavior.
The Western Force issued a statement Thursday urging O’Connor to take time away from the game to continue his playing future.
RugbyWA CEO Mark Sindeberry said the Force “remains open to the possibility of O’Connor’s return provided he understands and observes the club’s non-negotiable standards and values.
“Since the ARU’s decision, we’ve reiterated our position to James, including the non-negotiable standards and values — particularly around earning respect — that must be upheld by everyone in the team and at this club.
“However, at this point we believe it’s in James’ best interests to take time and reflect on what’s important to him.”