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Aussie O'Connor Returns To Auckland Field Of Dreams

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Aussie O'Connor Returns To Auckland Field Of Dreams

By Mark Geenty of NZPA

Sydney, July 13 NZPA - His schoolboy heroes were Christian Cullen, Carlos Spencer and Stacey Jones, he grew up in Auckland league heartland in Te Atatu and dreamed of being an All Black.

It hardly sounds like prime Wallabies rugby stock, but the brilliant James O'Connor's rise to Australia's national side at just 19 has been anything but conventional.

It was only eight years ago when O'Connor was sitting in the Eden Park grandstand with his family, cheering on the Blues and idolising a certain flying fullback on television.

"The first games of rugby union I started watching were the All Blacks, Christian Cullen was my favourite player and I definitely supported the All Blacks," he recalled today.

"Like every kid in New Zealand there were (dreams of being an All Black). Whenever I was in the backyard playing rugby I was always Christian Cullen."

His early taste of test rugby was certainly Cullen-esque; a dream Wallabies test run-on debut at fullback with three tries against Italy in Canberra last month.

But it was rugby league that grabbed his attention first in Te Atatu, where he grew up between the ages of five and 11 and attended Rutherford Primary School.

He played halfback for local club the Roosters, and was just a few days away from impressing Warriors scouts when his parents Warren and Tina shifted the family to the Gold Coast.

"We ended up playing in weight divisions back then. There were some big boys, and half the time the field was all mud and you couldn't really step away from them.

"I played in a junior carnival, under-11s, and they picked an Auckland rep team and we got to train with the Warriors, but I ended up coming over here a week before the training.

"I liked Stacey Jones, he was the man. In rugby it was definitely Cullen and Carlos as well. They were my heroes whenever I was in the backyard."

O'Connor was always going to have a complicated Tri-Nations rugby identity.

His father Warren is a proud Kiwi, born in Rotorua, while mum Tina was born in Cambridge but is South African.

He turned to rugby in his latter years at Brisbane's Nudgee College, and his father was told by National Rugby League (NRL) club scouts he was too small at 80kg.

But there was little about his Australian allegiance, even when the New Zealand Rugby Union expressed some interest in luring him back.

The toughest part was convincing his father -- "a passionate New Zealander" -- to support the Wallabies.

"I feel Australian. I was born here, this is where I started playing rugby properly. This is where my dream started to be a professional rugby player.

"My family's slowly making that transition as well... they're getting there, but Dad's finding it a bit hard. "

O'Connor quickly won over Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, who picked him for last year's spring tour at 18.

He rose to Wallabies poster boy status -- his only blemish a fine for a hotel room food fight last month -- and is poised to re-sign with the Western Force and earn a reported $A1.2 million in the next two years.

For now, O'Connor is simply excited about his return to Eden Park for the first time since he was an awestruck 11-year-old.

"I've got a fair few relatives still over in New Zealand. All my cousins are hitting me up for tickets, my grandparents, aunties and uncles.... it should be a good occasion.

"I watched a fair few Super 12 games there. It was a good occasion for us as a family. That was where the passion came from, going to Eden Park, so to be able to play there again is an awesome opportunity. "

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