Johnny turns out to be very good indeed

O'Connor the schoolboy failure has learned how to be a model pro.
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The Independent Online

He didn't quite screech into the car park with a handbrake turn and the opening bars of the "Self Preservation Society" blaring from the sound system. But the sight of Johnny O'Connor leaping out of his bright black Mini, with an outstretched hand and a cheery "How're you doing?" was an arresting one. Wasps' Ireland flanker has blown the bloody doors off a few opposing fly-halves this last season or so, and is scarcely less of a handful in conversation.

A thoroughly pleasant handful, mind you; it's just that O'Connor has the 100mph delivery of a son of the west of Ireland - Galway, to be precise, where he was born 24 years ago. He was perfectly happy to meet up on his day off before this afternoon's greatly anticipated Heineken Cup rematch with Leicester, and even telephoned to explain a short-notice change of venue. "I've just realised there are two Starbucks in Richmond," he said.

So we had a tea and a chat at London Welsh RFC, where reminders abound of the Lions of 1971, though O'Connor was wary of speculating on his chances of making the Lions of 2005. Having endured a three-year hiatus in Ireland selection, during which he signed for Wasps from Connacht in the summer of 2003, he does not regard himself as an established international, despite finally adding to an initial A cap with debut Tests against South Africa and Argentina last month.

"If I can keep playing well I might get a run in the Six Nations," O'Connor said. "But it is fickle. Even when you're there you're not really there. There are plenty of good Irish back-rowers around. At least I've got two caps, not one. I'd like to get into double figures."

Then he grins and says that "three figures" could be out of the question, and we're in the territory where absolute self-confidence trades with humility. O'Connor knows how easily it can all go wrong. In defeat, for instance: witness last Sunday, when, at Wasps' opening line-out, he was supporting his jumper while watching the ball arc over his head into the hands of his opposite number, Neil Back, and away for the first of Leicester's quickfire three tries. Or in the despair of injury - as last February, when O'Connor snapped his Achilles tendon and missed the conclusion to Wasps' Premiership and Heineken Cup double.

"I didn't play in the finals, and I didn't feel part of it," he said. "Now I want to get into the knockout stages and, of course, this game is vital to that. When I started off again this season, it took quite a lot of games [to adjust], and you make schoolboy errors and wonder why you've done them."

Not that Wasps' coach, Warren Gatland, or his Ireland (and Lions) counterpart, Eddie O'Sullivan, were put off. O'Connor has been a fixture on the openside for Wasps, and won solid reviews from O'Sullivan for "punching above his weight" against the huge Springbok back row. Lawrence Dallaglio, Wasps' captain, likens O'Connor to a young Josh Kronfeld, and the similarities are striking - scrum-capped, shoulders hunched and scuttling from ruck to ruck at a rate of knots.

O'Connor took on Kronfeld in Wasps' Premiership defeat at Leicester a year ago, and the Irishman admits it was a tick in his credit column. "I enjoyed the first time I played up there. It's intimidating, but a bigger crowd makes it more enjoyable. The more you play, the calmer you become in these situations."

Calmness will be a virtue today. Though protective of Wasps' plans for a bounce-back win, O'Connor conceded his side's rush defence was caught cold in the first meeting. The back row have been reminded to apply their full weight to the scrum. O'Connor also found the transition from country to club put him off his stroke. "The Ireland defence play different," he said. "I came back and sometimes overcommitted to 10 [Leicester's Andy Goode]. I knew I shouldn't be doing it, but I did it. I won't be doing it this time - definitely. The group is still up for grabs. If we start this week as well as we finished last, I can't see why we can't get some tries and turn Leicester over."

O'Connor gets home to Galway as often as possible. His parents have just left to visit his brother in New Zealand - that could be a handy bolthole next summer - so he will have Christmas lunch with his pal Damien Browne, the ex-Connacht lock who is at Northampton.

As a kid, O'Connor got through four secondary schools - "two were 'expellings', two were sort of 'moving-ons'," he said, again resisting elaboration - and had to cram at the private Yeats College to get his leaving certificate, the rough equivalent of A-levels. He then lasted "about a month" at university before working for his dad's building firm and packing goods for a sports company. "By the time I was 20," he said, "I'd made so many mistakes that I was well balanced and knew the difference between right and wrong."

The rugby was all right, with a professional contract at Connacht followed by the move to England. Now he's added a carpentry course, part-time. "I thought, 'I'll test myself, if I can't do well at Wasps then f*** it, I don't deserve it and I'll pack it in'. It was an opportunity that had its risks but it's worked out." And with that, O'Connor was back to his Mini: a man in motion, combining determination with self-preservation.