O'Connor returns home to Reds, Hunt switches
After drama-filled stints at the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels, James O'Connor believes he has found his perfect Super Rugby home, vowing to finally fulfil his potential after signing a two-year deal with the Queensland Reds.
And fellow recruit Karmichael Hunt, given a three-year contract at Ballymore, will set his sights on becoming a Wallaby after the Reds unveiled the two players as part of their 2015 squad at their Gala Ball on Friday night.
The official announcement ends months of speculation about O'Connor and Hunt, with the Reds heavily backing their star signings to be a success on and off the field.
O'Connor, playing for French side Toulon, said he could not wait to return home to Brisbane where he will join a Reds outfit desperate to improve from its ordinary showing in the 2014 season.
"I'm a Queensland boy through and through, growing up on the Gold Coast and spending most of my time in Brisbane. For me to come home and pull on that Reds jersey is going to be a huge honour," O'Connor said.
"Obviously there's a lot of hard work that needs to go into it and there's a great culture in the team and one I just can't wait to throw myself into. There's some massive leaders in the team and some great youth coming through.
"I also think it is a place where I can be nurtured and really fulfil my potential in Australian rugby."
Reds chief executive Jim Carmichael said he spent months deciding on the best move in terms of O'Connor's recruitment before becoming satisfied with the former Wallaby winger, who was effectively banished from Australian rugby after being intoxicated and escorted by police out of Perth airport last September.
Carmichael said he believed O'Connor had turned a corner during his stints with London Irish and Toulon and would prosper in the Reds environment, which features strong leaders such as Will Genia, James Horwill, James Slipper and the reinvented Quade Cooper.
"I've spent an inordinate amount of time trying to understand the psyche of the young man, the history of the guy, to really, truly know - outside of his football prowess - he will do justice to the decision. James declared his hand to Queensland very early, then I had the fortune to spend a bit of time satisfying myself that it was the right decision to bring him," Carmichael said.
"He genuinely wanted to come back to this environment he thinks will be great for his football and to play for Australia in the future. Then, there was months of me looking, talking, thinking and talking to the young fellow, where I was satisfied that through my organisation, myself, my board, my football department and my playing list, that we can bring the very best out of him.
"There's risk in everything in life. And where I sit at the moment, I'm very confident that he'll thrive in our environment."
Australian Rugby Union CEO Bill Pulver was equally thrilled with the announcement, "We are pleased James has made the decision to return to Rugby in Australia. He is a player who has a huge amount of potential on the field and I'm sure he's excited about the opportunity being presented to him by the Queensland Reds," he said.
Carmichael was still working at the AFL when Hunt crossed codes from the Broncos to the Gold Coast Suns. He said the 27-year-old was a hugely impressive player and person and would be a quality addition to the Reds, where he will probably play fullback.
"I was there when the AFL signed him and back then, one of the really important pieces was the AFL determined that separate to his athletic ability, they identified him as outstanding in terms of his character virtues," Carmichael said.
"As a CEO I couldn't be more enthusiastic about what he delivers into this group and how he will complement the culture, the ethos of Queensland. I'm thrilled from a CEO's perspective that his passion for Queensland has been enormous and wanting to perform at the highest level for Queensland - and be a Wallaby."
Pulver said Hunt's move has been supported by the ARU and will provide plenty of interest for fans.
"We're delighted that an athlete of Karmichael's calibre has chosen to play Rugby - a game he's familiar with and a game that we're confident will allow him to excite fans with his abilities on the field and profile off it," Mr Pulver said.
"We've seen Israel Folau adapt quickly to Rugby and we expect Karmichael to do the same.
"His immediate focus will be on gaining selection for the Queensland Reds, and we look forward to tracking his progress throughout next season and beyond."
O'Connor agreed to terms in May after a secret trip back to Brisbane where he met with Carmichael and Reds powerbrokers. The Reds had been in discussions with Hunt's management from late last year before an agreement was reached in recent months.
Carmichael said head coach Richard Graham and O'Connor would be able to work together despite the men not always seeing eye-to-eye when Graham coached at the Force.
"Absolutely. I wouldn't sign a player unless my football department were satisfied that the dynamics of that department would work," he said.
The Reds added two more new faces in Brisbane Broncos under-20s playmaker Duncan Paia'aua and thumping No.8 Hendrik Tui, a New Zealand-born back-rower who has played 25 Tests for Japan. He will be looking to supply the tackle-busting carries the pack desperately needed.
The two remaining spots on the roster are to be announced in coming weeks, while Ant Faingaa, Saia Faingaa, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Nick Frisby, Greg Holmes, Ed O'Donoghue, Ed Quirk, Jake Schatz and Ben Tapuai have signed new deals.
Samu Kerevi and Chris Kuridrani have been upgraded to the full squad while Albert Anae, Rod Davies, Mike Harris, Ben Lucas, Jono Owen, Dom Shipperley and Aidan Toua depart.