James O'Connor in action for Sale Sharks against La Rochelle during a Challenge Cup semi-final in France on April 20. Picture: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
James O'Connor in action for Sale Sharks against La Rochelle during a Challenge Cup semi-final in France on April 20. Picture: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

James O'Connor returning to Wallabies fold

JAMES O'Connor is expected to receive a late birthday present on Sunday, with the talented back set to board a flight with his Wallabies teammates to South Africa just two days after turning 29.

Foxsports.com.au understands that after weeks of talks with Rugby Australia officials about a return home, the second youngest Wallaby of all time will once again be eligible to play for the national side six years after last taking the field.

It's understood the 44-Test back, who made his debut for the Wallabies off the bench against Italy in 2008, moved to sign a long-term deal to return to the Queensland Reds in 2020 on Monday night.

That could keep him in Australia for at least three years.

But after originally being tempted back to Australian rugby by the prospect of playing for the Sevens teams at next year's Olympics, and holding talks with coach Tim Walsh, those plans appear to have been put on the backburner.

O'Connor will likely only come into the equation to play for the Sevens side should he again miss selection at September's World Cup.

He would then be looked at playing in the first four tournaments of the World Series Sevens in Dubai, Cape Town, Hamilton and Sydney.

Once pen is put to paper, O'Connor will be immediately eligible to start training with the Wallabies and it's expected national coach Michael Cheika will include the utility in his squad for Australia's opening Rugby Championship Test against the Springboks in Johannesburg on July 21 (AEST).

O'Connor's sudden return from Sale Sharks was earmarked last week when Sale Sharks director of rugby Steve Diamond told England's The Rugby Paper that O'Connor had been an exemplary person since joining the club in 2017.

"James has been brilliant from day one. I told him if he didn't overstep then everything would be great and we never had a bad word," Diamond said.

"If I was a betting man I would be expecting to be waving goodbye to James shortly. James would be first to say he didn't handle fame and fortune in the best way, but he is now 28 years old and a more accomplished player with silky skills and a brilliant ability to assist with line breaks and hits.

"Whoever gets him is getting a little pearl."

His return to Australian rugby has been made possible after O'Connor's meeting with Australian Sevens coaches Walsh and Stephen Hoiles in London two months ago.

After due diligence was done by Walsh, checking through the player's chequered history, negotiations ramped up and Wallabies coach Cheika was interested in getting his hands on the utility back, who played on the wing at the 2011 World Cup and at fly-half against the British and Irish Lions in 2013.

But once Rugby Australia director of rugby Scott Johnson caught wind of the player's desire to return home and also sounded out O'Connor's coaches about his changed character, the high-performance boss demanded O'Connor play Super Rugby.

With O'Connor likely to play in the midfield, his expected return helps ease the loss of captain and inside centre Samu Kerevi, who will join Japanese Top League powerhouse Suntory Sungoliath.

Former Wallabies teammate Drew Mitchell told foxsports.com.au being able to have that O'Connor had matured in recent years and would be an outstanding addition back in Australian rugby.

"I think he should be welcomed back," Mitchell said.

"It's been well documented about the number of players that are leaving Super Rugby and you've got someone of the quality of James O'Connor wanting to come back.

"I think most certainly we need to find a way to fit him into one of our teams and allow him to come back and fulfil his potential here in Australia."

"Just his general persona (changed)," Mitchell added.

"I was at the Force when he turned up as a young 17-year-old, so I've known him since the start of his professional career and I've had this conversation with James a number of times. We haven't always seen eye-to-eye throughout that journey.

"When he turned up to Toulon we had a team full of stars.

"James, even when he started at school, was always a big fish and the star that everyone turned to and the one that got all the press and the rest of it, and for the first time when he turned up to Toulon he was just one amongst the others ... but in that environment where we were for those few years, no one was bigger than the team, and James's willingness to jump in line, be himself most certainly, but also do everything for the betterment of the group was for me a big indication that he grew a fair amount in that time from when I played with him previously in Australia."