Does James O'Connor finally have the maturity to match his talent?

James O'Connor made his Super Rugby debut when the Western Force were in just their third season.

After two seasons in Super 14, the Force had at last assembled a squad that could push for the playoffs. In the likes of Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Nathan Sharpe, Matt Hodgson, Cameron Shepherd and Scott Staniforth, the West Australian franchise had the necessary Wallabies to contend in what was then the best provincial rugby tournament on the planet.

And that was before the now defunct Super Rugby franchise probably even realized what it had in David Pocock, Dane Haylett-Petty and Scott Fardy. It was also Nick Cummins' first year in Super Rugby; Nick Cummins pre-Honey Badger, let alone Nick Cummins pre-Bachelor.

But without question the most intriguing name on the Force's 2008 squad list was a 17-year-old O'Connor. Signed straight out of Brisbane's famed Nudgee College, this kid had to be good. It wasn't long before Australian rugby found out just how good this young Queenslander really was.

"I was there from minute one, I was one of the first people introduced to him when he first started at the Western Force," former Wallabies winger Cameron Shepherd told ESPN. "It was very much that there was this great young kid, 17; I'd also been through a similar experience, although they're vastly different people, with David Pocock, who started as a 17-year-old with the Western Force as well; I watched first hand these kids transition from being young kids out of school to being Wallabies, which happened with James.

"James rolled in with more confidence than I've ever seen in a guy that age, especially considering his first training sessions he's rolling in and he's copping passes from Matt Giteau and he's basically competing with Matt Giteau for a spot in the team. But what I always found so impressive about him was his ability to not be overawed by a situation. And I think it was that confidence that people mistook for arrogance a lot of the time, that made him such an incredible player at such a young age."

O'Connor debuted for the Wallabies at just 18 years of age. The hype was real, but so too was life in the spotlight. Part of a new breed in Australian rugby, O'Connor arrived on the Test scene after a significant exodus of long-time Wallabies at the start of the Robbie Deans era.

Not long after, the wheels fell off the rising superstar's career as a series of off-field incidents overshadowed his deeds on the field. There was the now infamous "my rugby brand" explanation of his move to Melbourne Rebels; the Bungy Bros spa picture; missing the 2011 World Cup squad announcement because he'd slept in and then, after he'd started at fly-half in all three Tests of the Wallabies' 2-1 loss to the British & Irish Lions in 2013, O'Connor was kicked out of Perth airport at 5am in the morning. O'Connor was allegedly drunk at the time, and the-then Australian Rugby Union later "released" him from his contract.

The airport incident aside, O'Connor's mistakes were those any young man could have made, particularly one finding his feet at the start of the social media age. And the situation was only further exacerbated by the fact O'Connor was part of a crew that had Australian rugby at its feet.

While he has absolutely no regrets over his own time in the west, Shepherd, in hindsight, can see how the Force may not have been the best place for O'Connor to commence his professional career.

"Because we were so isolated over in Western Australia, I don't think it was the best environment [for a 17-year-old kid]," Shepherd said. "I think if you look at James O'Connor's career starting with the Reds, and being around his family a lot more, I don't think he would have had some of the issues. Nothing against the Force but I think for a lot of guys, myself included, you were isolated and you didn't have mum and dad in your ear as a kid [transitioning into adulthood] saying 'hey, pull yourself together.'"

"And there was only so much the club could have done to protect some people from what was out there. And when you're popular, like James was, when we went somewhere girls wanted to talk to him, guys wanted to come and hang out with him because he was James O'Connor...every day there was constant distractions and he did well to concentrate on rugby. But when you're 18 years of age and you've got more money than you've ever seen before in your life, I think it's very understandable why he struggled with that transition."

It's a sentiment echoed by Force great Matt Hodgson, who is still involved in the club through Global Rapid Rugby. In his role with the Force, Hodgson was the first man to show genuine interest in bringing O'Connor home when the Wallabies utility signaled his desire for another crack at Test rugby in 2018.

"The problem with James was his off-field stuff marred what he was doing on the field at certain times," Hodgson told ESPN in September last year. "If we could flip that ratio around; I think that he probably realises that that's an option he probably should have taken growing up. But we're all young at some stage and we do make mistakes. The biggest problem with James [and other young players] is that they're put in the limelight, misguided and misdirected at a young age, and they probably don't know any other way, and everything they do is under the microscope.

"So like I said, James is learning the differences now; if he could do what he did on the field and that matched up with what he was doing off the field, then that's a big step forward for him."

But there is no hiding from what was the most serious of O'Connor's misdemeanors: A charge for purchasing cocaine in Paris. Playing with French giants Toulon at the time, O'Connor was arrested alongside former All Blacks lock Ali Williams and later handed a 1500 euro fine by French Rugby officials and ordered to undergo behavioural awareness programs.

O'Connor was soon thrown a career lifeline by English club Sale, whose Director of Rugby Steve Diamond offered a glowing character reference when granting the now 29-year-old a release so that he could head home and pursue his goal of a return to the Wallabies.

Ironically, the club who delivered the most emphatic 'no' of all when asked by ESPN in September last year, whether they'd be interested in O'Connor, completed an about-face and provided the Super Rugby home that could see him line up for the Wallabies in the Rugby Championship.

"Probably the thing that impressed me about him the most was he didn't shy away from hard questions," Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn said this week in explaining why he'd taken a chance on O'Connor when he'd previously been quick to dispense with others caught up in off-field drama.

"Pretty direct questions and had a chat with him - there was no shuffling or anything. It was 'yep, this was where it was at, this is how things were, I've learned some hard lessons,' I guess.

"It can be a really good story. We all want to see someone reach their potential with their football but more importantly as people, as young men. I sense there's a hunger there to put that jersey on and do the business."

Australia's Director of Rugby, Scott Johnson, also lauded O'Connor's transparency in confirming the 29-year-old's contract had been green lit.

"Now is the time for James' Rugby to do the talking," Johnson said. "He's come home for the right reasons to play rugby and to help develop our rugby programs.

"He's matured and understands the leadership roles both on-and-off the field. He's been honest and transparent throughout this whole process.

"We want to back the man to be the player we know he can be," Johnson said.

Actions will, of course, speak louder than words but it seems as though the former Rebels and Force playmaker might at last be ready to deliver on the potential that Shepherd first saw in a teenage O'Connor.

"There was one game, we were playing the Stormers in Cape Town, I think in 2009; we'd had a really, really tough build-up, some injuries, a couple of guys got sick the night before and couldn't play, so we had to roll in a few guys that weren't expecting it," Shepherd recalled. "I went out there thinking 'geez, this is going to be a really tough 80 minutes at the office,' James got moved to fly-half and he hadn't played a huge amount there at this point in time, and he scored a try - not long-range but just with incredible footwork to fight through tackles and use his speed and agility to get over the line. We almost won the game, but we just went down [25-24]. Without him on the field that day, we would have gone down by a lot more. And it was at that point that I saw just how talented this guy was."

If that try sounds familiar it's because one of the last sightings of O'Connor in Wallaby gold was a similar effort just before halftime in the third Test against the Lions in Sydney in 2013. That match would of course end in a 41-16 thrashing, and bring down the end of Deans' Wallabies tenure, but it could have also been the moment when O'Connor really stood up and made the Australian backline his own.

A failed Reds stint - so too a push for the 2015 World Cup -- has already come and gone, and has surely left many Australian players, administrators and, most importantly, the fans, with doubts as to whether Rugby Australia's decision to offer O'Connor a third chance is indeed the right one.

But in an age when young people are thrust into the spotlight at an early age and the negative effects of too much social media are further revealing themselves, there might just be more advantages to O'Connor's return than a left-foot, right-foot shimmy and, ultimately, a five-pointer that keeps the Wallabies in the World Cup.

"I think the other thing with James and the way he's developed over the last few years, he's had a lot of time to reflect on his youth," Shepherd told ESPN. "I don't think he's a guy who lives with too many regrets but I also think that with having a guy who has struggled with the transition -- you've got these guys in the group like a Jack Maddocks and some of these guys that are making the transition like he did at a fairly young age -- I think he's going to be a really good guy to balance their focus and be a bit of a mentor and give them some feedback on his story.

"So I think there are a lot of ways that James O'Connor is going to add a lot of value to this Wallaby squad."