“The Best Is Yet To Come”
#RugbySaleSharks Meets James O’Connor
So just some context here – when Sale Sharks played Toulon last year I spent much of the match negotiating with #RugbyToulon for the blonde playmaker who really impressed against us. Therefore I feel I take the credit for the later signing – and my promise to #RugbyToulon to look after him, here in Manchester.
Secondly it’s a cold and wet day here at Carrington – in fact so awful that the team have gone to The Ethiad to train for the morning. So why would a talented player from Australia’s West Coast and lovely, sunny Toulon come to Manchester! James laughs and admits that alongside Jonno (Ross) and Faf (de Klerk) he spends a lot of time discussing the weather and just how cold it can be. He tells me in the home game against Northampton where we had hail and snow throughout he couldn’t feel his fingers by half-time and seriously thought he had hypothermia. For a fraction of a second he thought he might have to come off but the thought of what Dimes would say very quickly put paid to that! Just as well as he went on to have an excellent game getting over the tryline. We discuss ‘the gloves’ and he just doesn’t care – anything to keep warm – and if they mean he can score tries like that than neither do the Sale faithful.
Weather aside James is loving his time in Manchester both club and home wise. He feels it’s a club that going places and that Dimes was very straight with him about the club’s expectations, both on and off the field. He says he’s in the best shape he’s been in for 18 months and puts that down to the physical regime used by the club. We talk about the foundations Sale are putting in place and how James has, for perhaps the first time been given an opportunity to be a ‘general’ and mentor to the young talent coming through the ranks. He’s clearly disappointed that he’s carried a niggling calf injury for most of the season and is currently in injury rehab and unlikely to feature for another 2 weeks.
I ask him when the opportunity came did he turn to close mate, and previous Sale player Danny Cipriani. He tells me it was actually Cips who had suggested he consider Sale and recommended him to Dimes. Recognition that sometimes Sale give players another chance perhaps? James agrees and tells me Dimes was very clear about what he expected from him. So how friendly is he with Cips – well they talk at least once a week and James tells me that he had never intended sharing a house with him in Toulon but everytime he stayed in the spare room he just left more and more stuff, until he’d moved in! There’s clearly a great camaraderie between the two – and of course Quade Cooper, with whom James spent some time recently. No chance he could lure Quade to Sale? James tells me that Quade is making some big decisions at this time centred around playing for Australia but if he decided not to return to Oz then he wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Sale but is very, very quick to point out its unlikely there’d be a place for him at the club with AJ MacGinty firmly established as the preferred choice.
You can’t discuss JOC, Cips and Quade without adding Matt Giteau and Kurtley Beale; and then the ‘bad boy’ tag that’s been applied to all of them. I ask James if he’s tired of it. He tells me it was difficult to be suddenly sprung into the limelight at a young age and have the world at your feet. He still wanted to be doing the things that others his age were but in trying to have a normal life every indiscretion was seized upon. He talks about how hard it can be to be expected to be a role model when you just want to live your life. However he’s learnt his lessons he says and indeed is not only charming but very mature and insightful throughout our chat. He enjoys the interaction the club has with the Community Trust. I ask him if he was relieved when Marland Yarde joined to take on the mantle of ‘new, bad boy’ and with a mischievous wink and tongue firmly in cheek he tells me Marland is much worse!
So Cips was never going to return to Sale but does he know where he’s off to? He laughs and tells me he’s pretty sure that he does – but No he’s not going to share!
We talk about James’s career for Australia and the family tensions that brings. His father is a Kiwi and his Mother’s grandparents came from South Africa but the family (James has 2 brothers) lived in Australia and he was clearly Australian, so he never felt he had a decision to make. So who do his parent support in the Internationals? Well usually his Dad is a fervent AllBlack but both supported the Wallabies when James played for them. So what are his hopes for an International return. He still clearly hungers for that return and sees his way back as establishing himself more firmly with Sale and in the Premiership. As he tells me ‘the best is yet to come!’ Once that happens then he’ll seek a conversation but feels if he can make enough of an impact there’s no reason why Australia won’t look to follow South Africa and change the qualifying rules. There’s clearly a feel that this is long overdue.
I ask him how the Premiership compares with Super 14 and Pro 14, for that matter. He’s thoroughly enjoying playing in the Premiership and feels that the standard and intensity is most akin to playing internationals week in/week out. However the hits are harder in Super Rugby and he can still remember the one he took in his second game from Ma’a Nonu, which clearly made an impact (see what I did there!). The biggest players he’s come across come from his time in Toulon.
Moving on to other matters – the hair is still blonde and intact – has he not been to Mike Hayley’s barber shop yet? He laughs and tells me he’s booked but there’s a big waiting list and he’s not made it to the top yet, which is probably just as well. For a player in whom there’s been a lot of interest he keeps his private life just that and I ask if he has a significant ‘other’. Sadly ladies he’s engaged and very, very happy with his fiancée also enjoying the Manchester life. No wedding date yet – and when there is it’ll be very secret – so no ‘Hello’ deals for this young man.
He’s played in a number of positions throughout his career and indeed at Sale so I ask where he prefers to play. Anywhere second ball position he tells me, which provokes an interesting discussion with Son that night. Happiest at Centre or 15 or wing, which we both agree is not currently needed at Sale.
Final question where does his nickname Rab or Rabbit come from. Rabbit started when he was 5 and playing rugby with his brothers. He couldn’t catch the ball but could naturally step off both feet. Although he also concedes that his older brother would tell me it was because he looked so little at the time! Over the year it evolved into ‘B Rabbit’ because of Eminem's character in the movie 8 Mile – and finally Rabs.
So was I right to agitate for his move from Toulon to Sale? Absolutely – he’s settled in, playing well and shows a graciousness and maturity in having to constantly answer questions about his past. There are some players who Dimes clearly settles and allows to play excellent rugby – interestingly there are clear parallels with Cips here but lets hope James is ready to play the long game. As he says ‘the best is yet to come’.
Thanks to James (as you can see we had a good laugh) – Sam Diamond and John Everton for looking after me.