James O'Connor: World Rugby's Clown of 2015

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2016

CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 31:  James O'Connor of the Reds looks on from the sideline during the Super Rugby trial match between the Queensland Reds and the Melbourne Rebels at Barlow Park on January 31, 2015 in Cairns, Australia.  (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
Chris Hyde/Getty Images

The new year presents a fresh start and new beginnings for those who decide they need it, a time when many attempt to make up for past wrongdoings and make for a better future. 

Try as he might, Australia's James O'Connor might look back on the past 12 months as a period he'd rather forget, And after compatriot Kurtley Beale claimed the 2014 award, the 25-year-old now gets the nod as world rugby's clown of 2015.

Australia's James O'Connor, a member of the World XV rugby squad, answers questions during a media session in Tokyo on Augusts 12, 2015. O'Connor is here to participate in the World XV rugby match against Japan on August 15 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rug

It could have been all so different for O'Connor, who returned to the Queensland Reds at the beginning of a Rugby World Cup year and, in theory, should have played his way back into the national team under Michael Cheika.

The player's chequered past is no secret. O'Connor was exiled from Super Rugby, representing London Irish and Toulon before making his return with the Reds, at which point he insisted he was a changed man, per the Associated Press (h/t the Guardian):

I made mistakes and it probably took me six months while I was away to come to an understanding. You do grow up. I moved away from the safety of my family and friends.

It was a tough transition but once you get that understanding of where you went wrong, it became pretty clear to me how I could come back on track.

If only such sound advice was heeded, we might have seen one of Australia's brightest prodigiesa man who made his international debut at age 18finally hit the heights that have so long been expected of him.

But it never came to be. One can't really dub O'Connor anything quite so insulting as a "clown" for struggling to reach his best, but a lacklustre season was sprinkled with moments not becoming of a former teen sensation:

O'Connor finished without a try to his name in 13 starts for the Reds, and his disappointment was crystallised when the club announced in October that his contract had been terminated for "personal welfare reasons."

This in itself is no reason to call O'Connor a clown as there were clearly factors in play that made his Super Rugby comeback a difficult transition, most likely associated with the expectations placed on him to succeed.

However, should it arise that O'Connor's second departure from Australia was linked to the same kind of issues that previously led to him being ostracised from the international ranks, he would again have something to answer for.

The details of his Reds exit are still to come to light completely, but a bad year got slightly worse when former Australia international Greg Martin appeared on radio station Triple M, threatening to shame the youngster, per Michael Carayannis of the Sydney Morning Herald:

James I warn you, when you get these words, I know where a lot of the skeletons are buried, mate. I know what's going on in the world and I know what you've done and we could tell a lot more so let's finish this right here and right now, mate.

I have no animosity towards James O'Connor. I just fired back after he had a crack at me on Twitter. It wasn't about any personal issues. I'm sorry if you've got your personal issues.

Don't forget I know a lot more about what goes on in Brisbane and what you've been up to this year that hasn't hit the [news]. If you want to keep on going James, let's keep on bubbling along. I'll tell you what, James O'Connor, mate, give us a ring any time 133 353 and then I'll give you my mobile number and we can have a chat.

The rapid rise of social media means many athletes are still getting to grips with how much they should say in a public forum.

Irrespective of how things are going on the pitch, O'Connor, has appeared content to keep fans amused across many platforms, whether it be by Facebook, taking viewers on a trip to the barbers:

Or using his Instagram account to show off a new set of wheels:

Or letting followers of his Twitter know it's not just on the pitch where his kicks have recently been off the mark:

James O'Connor @JamesOConnor832

Aaah my bad... @funkytrunks 😮 probs my best kick all year tho haha full video here. https://t.co/6TjW2BKfkG http://t.co/VOQIeIYH5l

Of course, any player is within their rights to use social media as much as any; the temptation to do so when one is being paid large amounts of money to play rugby must be great, after all.

However, one might be tempted to suggest O'Connor is at a stage of his career where all these distractions can take a backseat to what really mattersthe vehicle that got his career to this point in the first place: rugby.

Any comeback attempt in Super Rugby certainly wasn't helped by the overall quality of rugby in Queensland, and O'Connor certainly wasn't the only Reds player to endure a miserable 2015 campaign.

In any case, the World Cup dream looked over, and ESPN Scrum's Brett McKay attested to just how far down Cheika's pecking order the player had fallen after failing to make the Wallabies' 40-man training squad:

Brett McKay @BMcSport

Indication of where James O'Connor's form leaves him: Nick Cummins - who maybe did even less in 2015 - preferred to replace Henry Speight..

Despite his release from the Reds several months ago, the winger-cum-fly-half-cum-centre-cum-fullback—we said he was versatile—was happy to return to his base in Toulon and bid to bring the French giants more glory.

O'Connor is no longer a starlet. At 25, his chances at the elite level are shrinking, but Paul Williams of Rugby World and the Daily Telegraph's Iain Payten agreed that under all the controversy lies a brilliant player:

Paul Williams @thepaulwilliams

James O'Connor released by the Reds. Due to personal welfare reasons. Cracking player. Hope he can get it together.

Iain Payten @iainpayten

Real shame for Australian rugby to lose James O'Connor again. A superb player when fit and firing. One of Wallabies best in 2011 RWC.

This year won't be the first at which O'Connor has gazed upon with hope in his eyes and thought: "This one will be different." 

After kicking off 2016 with a brace of tries in Toulon's recent win over Pau, we can only hope this is the first sign O'Connor is ready to realise his potential after a 2015 that once again highlighted his clownish side.


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