In the red: James O’Connor’s only option in Australia looks to be the Reds. Photo: Jonathan CarrollJames O’Connor’s move home to Australia is shrouded in uncertainty with the door to his old club the Western Force poised to swing shut in his face.
The Breakdown understands the Force decided earlier this month they wanted to spend the considerable funds required to sign the 44-Test Wallaby elsewhere.
It is a 180-degree turnaround from their position late last year.
Back then, the club put O’Connor through a vigorous vetting process, which included extensive discussions with head coach Michael Foley and senior players, plus several pointed public statements about “culture” and “team players”.
Crucially, the Force wanted to make it work. The door was open, albeit with significant caveats.
Times – and people – change. While O’Connor has been making a success of his move to London Irish, and has signed a lucrative short-term deal with Toulon for the start of the French Top 14 season, the Force have been quietly building their most successful early-season run in many years.
It has led to a major rethink in the west. Does the club need a superstar with the perceived baggage O’Connor carries?
Just as importantly, can it afford one? Finances are stretched in all the franchises and the Force are not immune.
Australian rugby’s new contracting structure, in which the Australian Rugby Union sets the grade at which a player must be paid, has further limited the flexibility of the provinces. They can only augment a player’s contract, or out bid a rival province, using third-party deals.
Unpalatable too are O’Connor’s Olympic sevens plans. Provinces do not want to be thought of as holding pens for players with grander ambitions. His constant talk of the World Cup and Olympics left many in Perth wondering where the club’s goals fitted into O’Connor’s list of priorities.
The shifting sands make a return to the Reds his only option in Australia.
But Queensland coach Richard Graham said a month ago there had been no contact between the parties “at this point” and it is understood the lines of communication have not exactly been crackling since then either.
But with Digby Ioane apparently not wanting to end his big-money deal in Paris, can the Reds afford to say no to O’Connor’s considerable gifts?
Fuelling the fire is talk the Reds are stalling on a number of off-contract players and might be pinching pennies for a bid for O’Connor. Again, there is little noise coming out of Queensland on this, and the slow going on re-signings is more likely due to the ARU’s contracting shake-up.
Could the homecoming dream really be over for O’Connor, one of Australia’s biggest recent names?
Hodgson the force behind the Force
There has never been a more frustratingly humble player than Western Force captain Matt Hodgson.
Asked about his role in the defensive effort that built the side’s historic 28-16 victory over NSW last weekend, Hodgson refused to take any individual credit.
He made 17 tackles and won three turnovers, and split the press box in the man of the match vote, which eventually went to his flashier teammate Nick Cummins.
“It was a team effort really – I was just lucky to be there, because if no one makes that tackle then I won’t get that turnover,” Hodgson said when asked about his performance after the match.
To another question he answered: “We’re a family and all 23 stood up tonight.”
But the Breakdown will say it for him: Matt Hodgson is the heart and soul of the “family” he speaks of and one of the most deserving of credit for the side’s current hard-fought purple patch.
O’Driscoll and Cummins make a tweet couple
It’s been around the web but needs to be recorded in print.
What do you get when you cross an Irish legend with an Australian upstart?
More than Brian O’Driscoll bargained for anyway.
The former Ireland centre thought he would quietly follow Wallabies and Force winger Cummins.
Sound idea for life after rugby, considering the great BOD will presumably have a bit more time to pore over the colourful C ummins back catalogue on YouTube.
Naturally, the Australian winger couldn’t let the follow go unmentioned. He kicked off the following hilarious exchange between the pair on Twitter last week.
Cummins: “Thanks for the add old son. When ya coming to Perth for a fish?”
O’Driscoll: “For a fish and a watch of the on [fire] Force! Soon bud. You’re killing it at the moment, rugby and chat …”
Cummins: “Last year we were all sizzle and no steak, this year we had a horror start but now we are off like a bride’s nightie.”
That was before Cummins’ hat-trick led to the Force’s unlikely win against the Waratahs, their fifth straight this season.
West Australians can only hope the honeymoon period doesn’t end too soon.