By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, Sept 16 (Reuters) - James O'Connor's transformation from bad boy of Australian rugby to leadership material will be complete on Saturday if he can steer the Queensland Reds to an unlikely win over the ACT Brumbies in the Super Rugby AU final.
The once-wayward Wallaby, who will start at flyhalf at Canberra Stadium, has played a key role in the Reds' run into the playoffs of the domestic tournament.
While the term 'role model' has rarely been attached to O'Connor through a colourful career of 52 tests, he has been a paragon of team discipline since returning to the Reds this season, five years after he left Ballymore in acrimony.
Maturity has undoubtedly helped the 30-year-old keep on the straight and narrow.
Yet it is his close relationship with disciplinarian coach Brad Thorn -- and a desire to repay the former All Blacks enforcer's faith -- that is motivating him.
"I'm playing 10 so we chat every morning before the team connects in terms of game-plans, how we're going to approach the session .... There's a lot of conversations that go on away from the training paddock," O'Connor said on Tuesday.
"That's something I've never been involved with, so it's a lot more work but it's amazing when you gain the rewards and you feel like you've really grown.
"I've grown as the team's grown. I've learnt a lot this year. I've learnt an incredible amount."
That growth and commitment to learning bodes well for O'Connor as he fits into Dave Rennie's Wallabies plans and bids to reclaim the number 10 shirt he wore against the British and Irish Lions.
By the time of the 2013 Lions tour, O'Connor had already notched nearly 40 test caps and was the man who ended the All Blacks' 15-match winning streak in Hong Kong in 2010 when he calmly converted his own try after the siren.
One of Australia's "Three Amigos" with Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper, he was part of the tight clique of young Wallabies backs who played thrilling rugby but often ran amok off the field.
A few months after the Lions tour, O'Connor's Wallabies contract was terminated after reports he was intoxicated and abusive toward airport staff.
After a two-year exile in Europe, he returned to Australia in 2015 for an ill-fated stint with the Reds and a failed bid to make Michael Cheika's squad for the World Cup in England.
He was released from his Reds contract a year early but was soon in the headlines again while playing for Toulon in France, where he was arrested for cocaine possession while on a night out with former All Black Ali Williams.
Improbably, O'Connor now finds himself the last of the 'Amigos', with 70-test Cooper and 92-test Beale having quit Australian rugby.
He may yet have a chance to rival their contributions and claw back a career that seemed destined to be recalled with as much regret as pride.
"There was quite a bit of unfinished business before I came back this year," said O'Connor.
"My mind is firmly on getting the job done."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford )