James O'Connor interview: "Talk is cheap. I will let my rugby do the talking.”

Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Jordan Petaia has had a whirlwind of a year. Ask the teenager to describe it and he probably couldn’t find the words.

But there is one person who doesn’t need to ask, because he’s been there.

Ten years ago James O’Connor was in the very same shoes as Petaia – an 18-year-old on his first Spring Tour, in the mix to make his Test debut against Italy in Padova.

Indeed, it only seems like yesterday to O’Connor that he and another youngster who would also debut in the same Test were in the streets of Padova, and acting, well, their age.

“I remember we were going out for pizzas pretty much every night, we were checking out the village and the square and I remember running down a couple of those little alleyways passing the footy with Quade (Cooper),” he says.

“I guess we were only young blokes and the senior guys seemed to find that pretty funny because I guess I wouldn't be doing that now, running around the streets passing a footy drawing attention to myself but as a kid that's what you do.”

An interview with Petaia popped up on O’Connor’s Instagram feed this week, bringing back memories that many Test first-timers would share.

Because as much as the world changes, traditions like a rookie taking charge of the team mascot Wally never seem to, a role Petaia has taken up on this tour.

“He'll have a bit of fun with that,” O’Connor laughs.

“I got stuck with him for a couple of years actually.

“I'd lock him up in my room safe, that was the go-to spot, but Cliffy Palu and Tatafu (Polota-Nau) got him one time when were in Hong Kong and held him for ransom.

“They were playing a bit of guess who and putting up little clues that I had to solve and find.

“If you didn't have him at all the team functions you'd get fined so it made for an interesting trip.”

Petaia and O’Connor have never met but there’s every chance the Queensland kids will end up linked in the history books for decades to come.

If Petaia makes a debut next week – as many have tipped - he’ll become the third-youngest ever Wallaby ever behind O’Connor.

Amazingly it’ll be when the Wallabies play Italy. In Padova.

O’Connor will be watching on keenly, but not just out of curiosity.

After a string of controversies saw his days as a Wallaby cut short at the age of 22, O’Connor – now 28 - still harbours a desire to be back among the Wallabies.

Now playing for Sale in England, O’Connor spoke with RUGBY.com.au to reflect on the ups-and-downs of his career, the no-booze, mindful approach that’s changed his life and remaining rugby ambitions.

But, crucially, also about how he plans to achieve them - it's all about action.


O’Connor was the youngest Super Rugby debutant ever when he played his first game for the Force at just 17 and by the end of the year he was on a Spring Tour, not expecting to play but he hadn't really expected to be there either.

He debuted alongside Cooper and Sekope Kepu that day in Italy, the latter of whom became the first Australian prop to play 100 Tests when Australia played the All Blacks in Japan last month.

“It happened so quickly for me,” he said.

“I think when I first went on tour, I'd just turned 18 and I'd pretty much never been away from home for longer than a week and I was on tour with the guys for like five weeks in a hotel and just having that schedule in front of you as well from like 8am to 6pm, it was almost like I was on school camp."

That road to the top had its drawbacks, self-inflicted and otherwise, and O’Connor said he never really took the chance to appreciate what he had so young.

“At such a young age, I lost my identity almost or my identity became rugby,” he said.

“I thought I was "James O'Connor - the Rugby Player", I didn't really have that balance.

“Everything i did was based around either playing rugby or doing an interview or sponsorship gigs.

“I never took the time to sit back and just decipher all these moments I had at such a young age, like playing with the Wallabies and being involved in a World Cup and just really sitting with those experiences.”


O’Connor’s rugby career has been marred by a number of off-field controversies but the 28-year-old says he has found new life thanks to a wholistic men’s health group Saviour World.

From breathing techniques to eating plans, O’Connor says his work with the group has overhauled his view on life.

He has beefed up physically, employing a host of different training methods from jiu jitsu to nature walks, along with usual gym work and rugby training.

Playing with UK club Sale, O’Connor says he hasn’t had a drink for close to nine months and though it’s as much a practical decision as anything else, it’s a sign of his dedication to his lifestyle.

“I don't drink anymore. It's all hand in hand with that,” he said.

“When you drink it creates a deficit so as much as that night, you having fun, it drains your body of vitality so the next day, that's why you're hungover I guess for quite a while.

“For me, there's a time when you can celebrate but I've got so much work I need to do, I've got to stay focused.

“I can't afford to have any days where I'm not moving forward or being depleted of my energy and my drive.”

The 28-year-old was in Australia in 2017 with Toulon, espousing a changed mentality and greater maturity, as he hunted for a potential homecoming.

Later that month, he was fined by police for cocaine use and forced by the France’s national rugby body to attend behavioural awareness training.

This time around, he says he wants to do his pledging on the field.

“I spoke a lot in the past about things I wanted to do and situations and it's almost, for me at the moment, talk's a bit cheap,” he said.

“I just want to let the rugby do the talking.I know people say that a lot but essentially that's what's going to get me picked, that's what got me picked when I first started and literally, you can't hide out on the rugby field.

“There's a big difference between having knowledge and wanting to do something and having the strength and the discipline to do it.

“That's the biggest thing that I've learned and I live by now but my primary goal is just to play rugby now.”

He credits Saviour World for giving him this new outlook, now more likely to be out climbing mountains than heading out for a big night.

“It's about becoming conscious in all areas of your life from what you eat to the people you spend time with and the people you're hanging out with most,” he said.

“It's becoming conscious of what actual energy is and almost taking control of your mind and your thoughts.

“I'm hungry again. I haven't felt like this since I was maybe 20, not only just hungry to see what I can do and get out there

“I'm in the strongest place I've ever been but physically as well. I'm not a boy anymore.

“When I left Australia, I didn't have many hairs on my body put it that way.

“I'm a man now and in saying that that's in every way. on the field, off the field, the way I want to hold myself, it's based around that concept of being conscious and present.”


James O'Connor in action for Sale last year. Photo: Getty ImagesO’Connor has had injury battles since coming to Sale, admitting earlier this year that he was relying on frequent painkiller injections to make it through the past two seasons.

After off-field ankle surgery, O’Connor began from scratch with his new plan working towards a rugby return.

He made his Premiership return against Newcastle last month off the bench and says he still feels glad to have found his way to Sale.

“As soon as I spoke to (Sale coach) Steve Diamond, I knew that it was the right place for me, it would challenge me to take a leadership role and really develop areas of my game and areas of my life that I needed to,” he said.

“It's just enjoying myself on the field again and just playing week in, week out and if it's meant to be, I'll do enough to impress who I need to and I guess maybe we'll be speaking in a couple of months about it.”

Sale has a history of restoring reputations - O'Connor's former Rebels teammate Danny Cipriani went there after leaving the Melbourne Rebels and began to work his way towards becoming a Premiership threat once again.

The Sharks are no stepping stone for O'Connor but he is determined to begin to relaunch his Test prospects at the Manchester club.


View this post on Instagram

Coming to the end of my training camp in Iceland and it has been a humbling and truly enlightening experience. I have been pushed into some very uncomfortable situations by @saviourworld through the use of sensory deprivation, heat exhaustion and deep states of meditation. My reaction to each stimulus has forced me to face myself and my darkness in a way that I have never felt before. I now know who I was but more importantly, I now see who I must become. It is time for me to share my truth. I have a deep desire to play for the Wallabies again. I have learnt from my mistakes and I am now ready. Ready to bleed green and gold. Ready to bleed for my brothers. Ready to bleed for the people. I will be back playing in October and I will have my eye firmly on the World Cup. I will not let myself or anyone down again. Time to shine! 🙌🦁👣

A post shared by James O'Connor (@jamesoconnor832) on

O’Connor has made no secret of his desire to reach a second World Cup with the Wallabies and just two months ago reiterated his determination in an Instagram post.

O’Connor was frustrated for a long time by the way his time in Australia ended in 2013 and it’s only been recently that he has tuned back into the Wallabies and enjoyed watching Tests.

“I watch every Test match and that's something that's changed,” he said.

“For a while I got a little, not exactly bitter, but I was pretty hurt that I wasn’t part of it.

“I was like, "I want to be there, I want to be doing that," but obviously choices and decisions that unfolded didn't allow that but the place I'm at now, I'm loving watching it.”

The way the past decade has unfolded, he admits, is down to his own decisions but O’Connor’s focus is firmly rooted to right now.

“There's no point in regretting anything, what's done is done and that was my path and that was what I was meant to do,” he said.

“Everything I've done up to this moment has been correct to put me in the place where I am right now.

“There's things you could look back on and be like "I'd like to tweak that" but essentially what's the point of  living in the past?

“It's all about being here, being present in the moment and what I can do from now and how I can use my position and where I'm at to influence people in a good way and fulfil my purpose of what I'm meant to do in rugby.”

The World Cup still seems a dream that may be just out of reach, less than a year away and the small matter of need an Australian homecoming to be Test eligible.

The Western Force have expressed an interest in 44-Test back O’Connor but whether players in next year’s rebranded Global Rapid Rugby are deemed Wallabies eligible is yet to be seen.

It’s unlikely he would return to the Reds after his 2015 stint and the Waratahs and Brumbies have both said in the past that he wasn’t on their radar.

Even with a Super Rugby comeback, O’Connor would need to impress Australia’s coaching staff on and off the field in effectively five months to try and get a nod.

The specifics and possible hurdles don’t worry O’Connor, though.

“I think, I spoke out a couple of months ago and made it, put that out in the universe that I did want to play in this World Cup,” he said.

“It is what every top athlete strives for. In saying that, if it's meant to be it will happen."

“I'm not sure about all the workings around it and how it will do. All I can do is play each game and build my case for it

“I guess it starts after this phone call, I jump straight back into my routine and I prepare for my next game.”