Drug charge all but ends O’Connor’s Wallabies hopes
MELBOURNE – Two weeks after declaring himself “mature” and ready to reclaim his Wallabies jersey, James O’Connor’s international hopes turned to dust in the holding cell of a Paris police station at the weekend.
The 26-year-old utility back, who plays for French glamour club Toulon, and former All Blacks lock Ali Williams were charged for attempting to buy three vials of cocaine from a pair of drug dealers, a judicial source said on Sunday.
The players were drunk when they were arrested and detained in the early hours of Saturday morning.
A World Cup winner with 77 tests, 35-year-old Williams announced his retirement from international rugby in 2015.
But O’Connor, who played the last of his 44 tests in 2013, still harboured ambitions of playing at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
“I believe I have matured. I admit I’ve made mistakes in the past,” O’Connor told News Ltd media earlier this month when touring with Toulon for the Global Tens tournament in Brisbane.
“There is a hunger to play for the Wallabies again and it’s always been there.”
O’Connor is to pay a fine, according to the judicial source, suggesting he has elected not to contest the charge.
A public apology, including a pledge to make amends on and off the field, is likely to follow in coming days, but it will hold little currency in his native Australia.
The local rugby community has heard it all before from O’Connor, who was marked for greatness upon his 2008 Wallabies debut against Italy as a teenager but released from his contract in disgrace five years later.
Days after his last test against Argentina in 2013, O’Connor apologised for a drunken incident at Perth airport, where he was banned from boarding a plane and removed from the airport by federal police.
It was the last straw for the Australian Rugby Union, who tore up his contract due to the “cumulative impact” of his disciplinary record, which included missed team meetings, late nights out and an infamous food-fight in a team hotel room.
O’Connor was offered the chance of rehabilitation if he stayed in Australia, worked hard in Super Rugby and was prepared to accept a pay-cut.
Instead he took a contract to play rugby in England.
Overseas-based players are ineligible to be selected for the Wallabies unless they have 60 test caps, meaning O’Connor would have to play in Australia for a season to be selected in coach Michael Cheika’s squad.
But the player has already burnt bridges with three of the country’s five Super Rugby sides.
He left his first, Western Force, in acrimony in 2011, the Perth-based side suddenly withdrawing their offer to re-sign him over a breakdown in negotiations.
He was sensationally dumped by his second team, Melbourne Rebels, in 2013 after two injury-plagued seasons, with then-captain Scott Higginbotham questioning his place in the “team dynamic”.
After a year overseas, O’Connor was offered the chance of a clean slate in Australia in 2015 when he signed a two-year deal for the Queensland Reds.
But after failing to make Cheika’s World Cup squad for the tournament in Britain, he sought an early release from his Reds contract for “personal reasons” and went back overseas to play for Toulon.
The French club had not announced any sanctions for O’Connor’s latest indiscretion by Sunday. “Whether he’s exonerated or guilty over this Paris drama, he’s fallen face first with his words not matching his actions yet again,” rugby pundit Jim Tucker wrote in Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper. -Reuters