MELBOURNE: Once focused on his own performance, James O'Connor has embraced the bigger picture as captain of the Queensland Reds and the responsibilities of leadership have helped him grow as a player, the once-wayward Wallaby said on Tuesday.
O'Connor was handed the Reds captaincy in February after regular skipper Liam Wright suffered a serious injury and has been an inspiration in his second season under coach Brad Thorn.
On Saturday, O'Connor fired his team into the Super Rugby AU playoffs with a match-winning penalty in the 24-22 win over the ACT Brumbies in Brisbane.
The 30-year-old is virtually unrecognisable from the troubled player that left Queensland in acrimony in 2015 and was later arrested by French police in a cocaine scandal while playing for Toulon in 2017.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always been very individual,” O'Connor told reporters at the Wallabies' training camp in Sydney.
"I think part of my growth moving to 10 (flyhalf) was learning how to serve the team before myself and the captaincy took that to another level.
“It's not just on the field, there’s a lot of stuff off the field and making sure that all the moving parts are coming together correctly (and) utilising the other leaders in the team who ... can bring out the best in the different groups, nationalities and units."
After a stint playing in England as a centre for Sale, a bulky O'Connor returned to Australia in 2019 in time to be selected for the Rugby World Cup under former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika.
There were flashes of brilliance in Japan but he struggled to impose himself as the Wallabies crashed out of the quarter-finals.
Switching to flyhalf has meant a mental and physical shift for O'Connor, who struggled with the playmaking role during the 2013 British and Irish Lions series but has now become Dave Rennie's first choice in the position at the Wallabies.
O'Connor said he had to slim down and work hard to claw back some of the speed that tore defences to shreds in his teen years and early twenties.
"I was playing 12 and 13 over there (in Europe) and it's a power game so I was sitting at about 95 kilos," O'Connor said.
"Now I'm playing 10 I need to be covering more space and looking for second touches.
"A big emphasis has been to get my leg speed (back) and I feel like I've got my footwork back.
"The last thing that comes is probably my top-end speed but I’m very comfortable where I’m sitting now and there’s been big growth there."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)