London Irish grant James O'Connor his chance to come in from cold
Brian Smith delights in coup for Exiles after landing talented Wallaby outcast
"A river without banks is just a big puddle." So said Brian Smith in welcoming the occasionally wild and frequently wonderful Wallaby back James O'Connor to London Irish, and just as his audience were wondering if he was having an Eric Cantona moment, the coach explained himself. "Talent and energy needs direction – it needs to be channelled," he said, indicating that this was what he was offering the biggest signing in the Exiles' history.
In return, Smith and company expect to see the best of the 23-year-old O'Connor – and as his best is a good deal better than most international players can dream of producing, he could be just the man to push the Exiles a long way up the Premiership table over the next six months. "Any team in the league would be delighted to have him," the coach continued. "He'll be an asset not just for London Irish, but for the game in this country."
O'Connor, stripped of his Australia Rugby Union contract for disciplinary reasons, has committed himself to London Irish until the end of the Premiership campaign. "I'd like him to be here beyond that," Smith said. "I seriously believe he could become the most-capped Wallaby of all time, but the thing for him now is to get his head down and help us win some rugby games. That's the deal."
According to O'Connor, capped 44 times despite his tender years, this adventurous move represents a "new step in my life that I need to take right now". Buffeted, battered and bruised by life in what he called the Wallaby "bubble" – thanks to his off-field transgressions, he found himself treading that well-worn sporting path from the back pages to the front ones – he admitted that the last few weeks back home had been difficult to handle.
"I won't lie about it: this has been a tough decision," he confessed. "But the idea of moving away from Australia is that it gives me a chance to focus on my personal development, as a player and as a person – to work things out for myself and become my own man. I spoke to clubs in Japan and in France, but rugby-wise I believe this is the best fit. I don't think I'd change too much of the past because it's been an amazing ride so far, but I need to find some balance."
Smith, who plans to play O'Connor at full-back and is likely to name him in his side for this weekend's game with Northampton, was keen to emphasise his signing's "prodigious talent" rather than pick over the behavioural excesses that lay behind this spell of self-exile. "You can write what you like," he remarked, "but I need him to get his head around playing for this club and I don't want him looking over his shoulder. Who in this room has never made a mistake? In life, you take people as you find them. With James, the most important conversation was the first one, because I had to know if this kid was the one I'd been reading about all summer, or was someone different.
"I'm an Australian myself and I feel I understand his background: he comes from a place where I went on holiday as a kid. I also believe that if he performs at a high level here, all other questions will be answered. Will he play for the Wallabies again? Of course he will. Will we see him at the next World Cup in 2015? If he spends the next few months shooting the lights out for us, it could happen."
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