Rugby League: O'Neill vows to walk away from the wild side

Wakefield put faith in a new recruit determined to restore his good name.
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JULIAN O'NEILL has got his name back. The trouble with Wakefield's latest and riskiest signing for the new Super League season, which starts this weekend, is that it is a name with so much baggage attached to it.

O'Neill was known as Jules last season, because Widnes already had a Julian O'Neill - a nice, quiet Kiwi - on their books, but will now be known as Julian once more.

What he is known for, however, apart from his undeniable ability to play the game of rugby league, often to a sublime level, is ridiculous behaviour off the field.

The latest edition of the Australian publication, The Encyclopaedia of Rugby League Players, does its best to sum it up. It devotes almost a full page to him and little of it concerns his considerable qualities as a player.

In almost 15 years in the game, he has been sacked by the Brisbane Broncos after a drunken incident in a casino, sacked by the Western Reds for disciplinary breaches and had his contract cancelled by South Sydney after a pub was wrecked in Dubbo, New South Wales.

A stint with the London Broncos ended when he was arrested for a drink- driving charge hanging over him from a previous stay with Widnes, a club he rejoined after a season and a half with Wigan.

Last winter, he appeared to have excelled himself when he was accused of trying to set fire to a boy in a dolphin costume during a boat trip on Widnes's pre-season training camp in Australia.

"Julian has had his moments," says Mick Robinson, the Australian player- manager who has helped to steer him to Wakefield after a spell in French rugby union with Pau, "but that was disgraceful. He was completely stitched up for the publicity."

Whatever the truth of that, what on earth are Wakefield, whose success last season was based on strong internal discipline and cohesion, thinking of in bringing him back into the game at the age of 32?

"He's just a quality player," says the Wakefield coach, Shane McNally. "He's proved that over and over again. "There have been well-publicised events in his life, but I've spoken in depth to our new captain, Jason Demetriou who played with him at Widnes, and he speaks very highly of him."

McNally came across O'Neill as a young player in Brisbane and is, of course, aware of his reputation. "It goes back a long time, to that first incident in the casino, and every time he's done something since then, people have jumped on the bandwagon.

"But I've had a lot of long conversations with him and I'm confident that he's coming here with the right attitude."

"One thought I had was that he might not be a very hard trainer, but Jason says he trains very hard and will lead everyone in everything we do. He might be 32, but he's the sort of player who doesn't get knocked around a lot."

McNally believes O'Neill will win over the sceptics at what could be the last club of his chequered career. "Some people have been a bit reserved about it, but when I officially announced it to the supporters it got a very good response," he says.

O'Neill has been brought in after just a few months in France to fill the gap at loose forward left by the departure of last year's captain, Gareth Ellis, to Leeds. "I loved it there," O'Neill says. "But the family hated it. I had a social life there with the cafes and everything; they didn't. The rugby was good, though, even though they moved me to the wing because I couldn't speak the language for the moves."

O'Neill expects Wakefield to be his last club and believes he should be able to relaunch his rugby league career there with a clean sheet.

The former Widnes coach, Neil Kelly, is another who has given him an endorsement. "He would, because I performed for him," O'Neill says. "I've been a ratbag at times in my career, but I don't think I was a ratbag at Widnes, was I? I loved it there and helping them to avoid relegation was a highlight of my career."

As he could point out, but prefers others to do, there have been plenty of other highlights in a career which - for all its ups and downs and periodic dramas - has not been exactly wasted.

He has won a Grand Final, played for Australia and for Queensland in State of Origin. This season, he has set his sights a little lower.

"If Wakefield could make the play-offs again, that would be awesome. My last two seasons have been all about avoiding relegation. I want to be involved in the play-offs and one reason for coming to the Wildcats is that they've shown they can do it.

"They've signed me as a runner, rather than a ball- handler and the plan is to use me at loose forward, but I'll slot in anywhere I'm needed."

On the tricky subject of giving a Wildcat a bad name, he has a rule of thumb for assessing how he is going with his new club. "I've told them I'm happy with Jules or Julian. I'll know if I've messed up, because it will probably just be `O'Neill'! That's how I'll know I'm in trouble."

O'Neill says he is still followed around by rumours of drink-fuelled incidents from eight or 10 years ago, but he is surrounded now by people from his more recent past and his present who are backing him not to mess up.

His new captain, Demetriou, is a case in point. "I enjoyed my time playing with Julian at Widnes. I learned a lot from him and the young players here will learn a lot as well.

"He's made mistakes in his life, but the bottom line is that he can really play the game. When I was asked, I also told them what a good bloke he is off the field.

"We just might have to get a fireproof costume for the mascot."