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From boy to man

Ben Kimber

There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there was certainly a ‘me’ in James.

As an 18-year-old, James O’Connor arrived on the Australian rugby scene seemingly built purely of talent and hubris.

There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there was certainly a ‘me’ in James.

As an 18-year-old, James O’Connor arrived on the Australian rugby scene seemingly built purely of talent and hubris.

He didn’t walk, so much as strut or saunter.

Kicking open the saloon doors of Australian rugby, O’Connor shouldered the weight of being the next big thing with a cheeky smile and a sharp sidestep.

The youngest Super Rugby debutant ever at just 17 when he ran on for the Western Force in 2008, O’Connor also donned the Wallabies jersey for the first time that year – at just 18 years and 126 days the second youngest Wallaby ever – off the bench against Italy in Padova.

In a sign of things to come, James O’Connor touched down against Italy in his first test for the Wallabies. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

This kid could be anything, was the commonly held view.

Instead, young James was quite something.

Off field incidents had piled up, team announcements and buses were missed, and “Brand O’Connor” faded quickly.

And just five years after his debut, the golden child of a rugby generation was shoved unceremoniously back out those saloon doors with a virtual kick up the pants.

Despite his young age and 44 Wallabies caps, you would have struggled to find anyone in the game down under who was not happy to see the back of him as he headed off to ply his trade elsewhere.

Which is why if you’d just tuned into rugby again this year, the sight of James O’Connor as the linchpin of the Wallabies backline, being rushed back into the side from injury, would cause you to rub your eyes.

Surely that was just another weird side effect of the increasingly strange 12 months that was 2020.

Just five years after his debut, the golden child of a rugby generation was shoved unceremoniously back out those saloon doors with a virtual kick up the pants.

Having watched the soap opera of James’ career to date – and being certain that for James, it was all about James – my natural scepticism that there was a selfless O’Connor who could be an integral part of the team needed to be tested.

And the man to ask was Jim McKay.

The Queensland Reds attack coach is not just the man who has re-introduced O’Connor to Australian rugby through his time in the Reds jersey, McKay was also part of the Wallabies coaching staff under Ewen McKenzie when the talented back was ejected from the game.

After holding open those saloon doors as O’Connor was booted, surely McKay was fearful about what to expect on the player’s return.

“We were of course very apprehensive with his background,” McKay recalled. “We met him four times, and Rugby Australia as well. Brad [Thorn] had recently moved a few guys on as well. [James] wanted a clean slate, and Brad said to him, well you can build your redemption story here.

“I probably had a different view than most because I was with the Wallabies when we got rid of him, but I wasn’t any more concerned than Brad or the board or the Queensland Rugby people. James presented himself really well.”

Having missed out on making the Wallabies World Cup squad in 2015, O’Connor shifted to France for three seasons. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

He would have needed to. After leaving Australia O’Connor had continued to make headlines.

The reputation as a party boy only became entrenched further in 2017 when playing for Toulon in France, O’Connor and former All Black Ali Williams were arrested outside a Paris nightclub for allegedly trying to buy cocaine.

Spending three nights in jail, despite being subsequently released, was a nadir for O’Connor and what he sees as a turning point.

“When everything happened in France I had already started to realise what was good for me and what wasn’t, but then I made this mistake,” O’Connor told Boss Hunting magazine this month.

“I let my guard down, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but honestly, I was far from innocent, and I needed help badly. I was drinking every day, experimenting with prescription drugs, it was rock bottom.”

O’Connor found a new purpose through a self-help guru, and has been on a PR blitz since his return, accepting blame for his wayward efforts in the past, and talking about being a changed man with leadership goals and mentoring front of mind.

I let my guard down, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but honestly, I was far from innocent, and I needed help badly. I was drinking every day, experimenting with prescription drugs, it was rock bottom.”

James O’Connor

But how can Australian rugby fans believe the self-described ‘chameleon’ is genuinely here for the good of the game?

McKay is certain he sees a different man.

“There’s a massive difference between the player then and now,” McKay says. “I saw someone come into the Reds that was towards the end of their career and with a more selfless attitude. Someone who wanted to share his knowledge with others but also wanted to grow into a new position.

“And in his work, he had unfinished business and unfinished potential. All this knowledge and experience he had and then this input of having a look at himself, and then he’s playing No 10 for Queensland and Australia. I admire him for taking the challenge on on top of everything else.

“The main narrative here is he’s put himself out of his comfort zone.”

Since returning to Queensland earlier in 2020, James O’Connor has been the perfection of professionalism with Brad Thorn’s Reds. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

And as to mentoring, the now 30-year-old is clearly no longer the youngster in the side, and has been assuming a senior role all year.

“His age profile is different this time around,” McKay says. “A lot of our [Queensland] guys are in the 19, 20 or 21 band, and that’s interesting because they don’t have so much in common with him. What they want to do on the weekend is different to James. He suddenly found himself in a team where the age profile is really, really young. He was that young person before and he’s suddenly come into a team that’s young.

“He also watches his diet, he’s found other ways to look after himself, to stay healthy on the inside, to get some longevity. He’s taken a holistic approach. It certainly hasn’t always been smooth, but it’s still a work in progress, and he’s been good so far and he’s got something to offer. He’s been good for us and it’s been good for him and our team.”

In a crazy year of COVID affected rugby, it’s hard to deny O’Connor has been good for the game. A linchpin of a Reds team showing real promise, and a cool head in an Australian team with a new coach and some roller-coaster performances.

He also watches his diet, he’s found other ways to look after himself, to stay healthy on the inside, to get some longevity. He’s taken a holistic approach. It certainly hasn’t always been smooth, but it’s still a work in progress, and he’s been good so far and he’s got something to offer. He’s been good for us and it’s been good for him and our team.

Queensland Reds attack coach Jim McKay

It’s easy to forget it’s talent rather than a natural suitability for the No10 jersey that allows O’Connor to play that role, a role McKay says he is still a long way from perfecting.

“My role has been to challenge him, and to support him,” McKay says. “To say what it looks like. He’s going to get better at playing 10. He had to look at the game through a different lens.

“He still has a long way to go. Stuff like his kicking game, what the team needs, tempo and all that. But so far he’s played really well and selflessly. And he’s played a really good, unassuming role at the Reds. When you explain something to him, the moves, he picks up things quickly.”

Maybe he does on the field.

Off the field it’s taken James a long, winding road of lessons to arrive where he is now.

Let’s hope he stays on track.

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