NEVER mind the ridicule. So long as James O’Connor feels healthy the haircut stays.

”At times I’ve wanted to shave it off and get rid of it but I’m in a good space … sort of like Samson,” the Melbourne Rebels star jokes of the topknot that is earning him plenty of grief from teammates.

O’Connor is contemplating having his locks lopped for a good cause, possibly to raise money for charity, but can already claim he has paid his dues for a nightmare 2012.

As if watching the Rebels struggle through last year’s Super Rugby season while being unable to overcome hamstring problems wasn’t enough, one of Australia’s best young players also had to decline a Wallabies tour, gifting club teammate Kurtley Beale the chance to shine as five-eighth.

O’Connor could have toured Europe, but ruled himself out to regain full fitness for 2013. That he is now fitter, stronger, faster and looks like a coiled spring as he awaits the chance to play again proves sitting out the Wallabies tour was wise, although he admitted on Friday doing so was one of the hardest decisions he had ever made.

”That’s the pinnacle of the game, that’s why you play,” he said.

”But for me, I’m 22, if I’d torn my hammy straight after that it would have been surgery and possibly out for a year. This is the time I want to be improving as a player and hitting my peak, these next few years.

”It was a big sacrifice. You never know how many Tests you’re going to get and how many chances with the Wallabies and there’s definitely boys in my position who have stepped up this [past] year, but I want to play Super Rugby and hopefully my performances get me back in the [national] team.”

O’Connor is itching to play so badly he needs to be reined in at training. He beams at the thought of starting a new season against his old side, the Western Force, on February 15, and feels a stronger player for overcoming his injury frustrations.

The club’s medical staff had traced his hamstring problems back to a liver laceration he suffered last year, when kneed in the side during a tackle. Because his body could not get rid of all its acidity, he could never quite overcome a hamstring injury that followed and ultimately worsened.

Winter meant early-morning rehab sessions, during which he struggled with being isolated from his teammates.

But he got into yoga, Pilates and meditation with Tibetan singing bowls – a ”hippie thing” introduced to him by teammate and roommate James King – and forged strong relationships with his recovery team. He said the Rebels’ head of performance, Mark Andrews, strength and conditioning coach Zane Leonard and physiotherapist David Rundle put up with his grumps in helping him get back to fitness.

”They put a lot of work into me, I think we’re all relieved I’m back out there,” he said.

Missing the Wallabies tour meant O’Connor has had the first pre-season campaign of his career and, even though he cannot judge previous summers, said there was a healthy buzz among the Rebels following a turnover of 14 players from last year.

”When you can hear a lot of yelling and music blaring and boys yahooing and ringing the bell getting PBs, that’s when you know things are going well,” he said.

O’Connor is out of contract this season, but said he was loving life ”under the radar” in Melbourne and keen to emulate the success rugby league counterparts at the Storm have built in AFL territory.

He was also keen to raise the internal competition with Beale in a bid to reclaim the five-eighth role.

”I haven’t had much time in professional rugby at 10 and I would like to get more time there,” he said.

”It’s a position I like to play, I like to control the game. But in saying that I like the opportunities that come from that second ball player, a bit less responsibility and you can be a bit more creative and have more of a running game.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.