"No hiding anymore": O'Connor comes full circle to nail World Cup audition in Perth

The Rugby Championship
by Iain Payten

Just under a year ago, James O’Connor publicly “put it out to the universe” that he wanted to play for the Wallabies again. At the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

It seemed, to be fair, a very long shot.  

Saddled with a damaged reputation from his time as a younger man in Australian rugby and drug-related issues overseas, O’Connor was at the time recovering from ankle surgery and playing without fanfare for Sale in the English Premiership.

Fast forward a year, however, and O’Connor has not only made a return to Australian rugby but made a triumphant return. 

After a strong performance at outside centre in the Wallabies’ record win over the All Blacks, it now looks more likely than not that the versatile O’Connor will win a coveted place in the Aussie squad for the Rugby World Cup.

It has been a remarkable story of a person turning their life around, and so it was perhaps fitting that the “universe” responded to O’Connor’s World Cup request by making him earn it in Perth.

This was the city that O’Connor arrived as a teenager to play for the Western Force, and via a special dispensation, where he became the youngest Australian to ever play in Super Rugby.

It’s where he launched his Wallabies career as an 18-year-old, too. 

But with a rapid rise to stardom and not enough checks and balances to curtail rising attitude issues, Perth was also where O’Connor’s Aussie career came crashing down.

In 2013, it was an alcohol-related incident at Perth airport that was the final straw for the ARU, who cut him free.

So little wonder O’Connor was one of the few who stood in the middle of Optus Stadium a little longer than most on Saturday night, soaking up the win and reflecting perhaps on just how far he’d come.

And then, as some of his teammates went for a deserved beer, the older and wiser O’Connor went home to bed.

O’Connor has spoken often in the last year about growing up and changing his life, but past teammates will tell you the young “Rabs” always talked a good game.

Now, crucially, his teammates see him living the change too.

"He’s really awesome, bro,” Samu Kerevi said.

“He just has an aura about him and what he’s bringing to the team in terms of rugby and off the field. 

"He’s changed a lot since the last time I’ve seen him. Just really low key. After the recovery session I was asking him if he wanted to go into the city and he said he was going to go to bed and get some more food and get the recovery packs on. 

"I was like 'ah ok ok, you're the ultimate professional now'. It’s awesome.”

Talking with media for the first time since he returned to the Wallabies, O’Connor said post-game in Perth that he was “incredibly grateful” for the opportunities he’d been given, and admitted for a long time he’d had major doubts about ever wearing gold again.

"Oh there was doubts, for sure,” O’Connor said.

"But once I went away I guess I just realised how much I miss the place.

"It took me a bit longer than most to actually get the courage and put it out there, what I wanted and to go for it.

"I knew I had it in me to do it but there was a lot of things that had to go right.

"I just had to be disciplined and win the day every day.

"I had to work every day, I had to do the right thing – one little thing could put me back a couple of days.”

O’Connor credits the influence of a men’s self-improvement group in the UK called “Saviour World” - which teaches a holistic program of fitness and meditation  - for empowering him get his life on track. 

"If I didn’t have them, I’d still be in the wilderness in the UK,” he said.

"So a lot of this goes to them for giving me that strength, the power to really chase what I wanted.

"Put it out there and have the guts to fight my ego and come back and do what I love.”

He's not the preachy type but O’Connor hopes his presence back in the Wallabies can be an influential one on young players.

"I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger and I’ve learnt from it now,” he said.

"I guess I have a bit of wisdom on ways you can do it better so that people don’t follow what I did and waste five years of their career and their life."

The striking change in O’Connor as a person has almost overshadowed the fact he has not, underneath all that, changed as a world-class rugby player.

O’Connor was a brilliantly talented young Wallaby, and playing on the wing, was one of Australia’s best at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Robbie Deans also trusted him with the no.10 shirt for the Wallabies in the huge series against the British and Irish Lions in 2013, too.

But now, as an older and bulkier athlete, O’Connor has found a home in the midfield and in the 29-year-old, respected analyst Rod Kafer reckons the Wallabies have found the man they’ve been missing for years.

O’Connor is a ball-player in the outside centre channel; a role other Test nations have been using for a while to link between the inside channels and weapons out wide, like the Wallabies have in Marika Koroibete and Reece Hodge on the wings.

And sure enough, O’Connor set up Hodge with two tries in Perth.

"We’ve got so many good outside backs who can beat guys one-on-one so I don’t really have to do that too much,” O’Connor said.

"Samu’s beating them, we saw Reece tonight, Marika he’s a freak so I’m just trying to connect those guys and give them some space.

"And also some of our loose forwards are running some great lines.

"I’ve got a very specific role that I play in the team and I’m just getting around it and trying to make connections, linking guys up and trying to bring the best out of other players on the field."

O’Connor said he hadn't wanted to return to Australian rugby purely based on personal goals. He wanted to help the Wallabies and Queensland win games.

"It’s just been so special to come back and be a part of it,” he said.

"My initial conversations with Michael and Scott were that I want to come back and play rugby but I also want to win, bring some success back to Australian rugby.

"From the first training camp we went into, I knew we were building something special.

"I was literally napping two times a day, in bed by nine o’clock.

"The tempo and intensity was right up there so I was like we’re training at this level, we’re going to be ready to play."

O’Connor’s return to Australian rugby prompted plenty of scepticism and negativity when first announced last month.

But the wheel seems to be slowly turning, and O’Connor said he’s been blown away with the support he’s received.

“It’s pretty special actually,” O’Connor said.

"Coming on last week, it was awesome to have the Nudgee boys there in the corner.

"I’m just putting it all out there – this is who I am, this is what I’m about.

"I guess there’s no hiding anymore and everyone’s been supportive about that.”