The transformation of James O’Connor from one time bad boy to inspirational leader is a major talking point this season. Key to this, says former Wallaby and current RUPA National Project manager James Holbeck, has been his development as a person rather than player.
When James Holbeck watches James O’Connor leading the Queensland Reds around the paddock with calm, confidence and assertion, he sees far more than someone who is at the top of their game.
Holbeck sees a once superstar-on-the-rise who fell to the trappings of fame and led a scandal riddled life of seeming self-destruction, but has now grown into a person who holds himself to account. He sees someone who is inspiring people through his commitment to a greater cause than himself, a person not just playing brilliant rugby for himself and his team, but has found purpose in his life.
It is the person rather than the player that Holbeck is most glad to see in O’Connor; and not just for his sake, but for every player who may be on the cusp of a similar pathway that he had been on.
O’Connor, now 30, left Australia in late 2013 to play for English club London Irish after leaving the Western Force due to alcohol related scandals. He returned in 2015 to play for the Queensland Reds in a bid to make the Wallabies World Cup squad. After failing to do so, he went back to the northern hemisphere to play for the French Top 14 side Toulon in 2015, but left amidst allegations relating to cocaine use and signed with English club Sales Sharks on a two year deal for the 2017-2018 season.
In July 2019, O'Connor returned to Australia again to sign with the Reds and Rugby Australia for two years, but under strict behavioural clauses. He fought his way back into the Wallabies for Australia's 47–26 win over New Zealand in Perth, and was selected in Australia's 2019 World Cup squad. Since then he has only continued to impress under Reds coach Brad Thorn and the Dave Rennie coached Wallabies with whom he last year earned three of his 55 Test caps since his debut in 2008.
Holbeck, the Rugby Union Players’ Association National Project manager, empathises with O’Connor who has excelled this season in the playmaker role that suits him so well, and did so likewise as the Reds’ stand in captain for their injured skipper and backrower Liam Wright.
Injury marred Holbeck’s Test career that was book-ended by appearances off the bench. His Test debut was in 1997 against New Zealand at Christchurch and his last Wallabies appearance was in 2001 in the final Test against the British and Irish Lions that Australia won to clinch the series. But slow recovery from shoulder surgery in early 1998 limited his tally of Test caps to seven. However, controversy also tarnished Holbeck’s career. In 1997, due to alcohol related issues, Wallabies coach Rod Macqueen sent him back to Australia from Argentina as ‘not required for duty’ on the end of year European tour.
“I had a bad run in rugby for a while,” Holbeck recalls. “I got dropped from the Wallabies for good reason. I was playing pretty ordinary and [had a] bad attitude. Then I had a shoulder reconstruction and was out for 12 months instead of six. Then I got injured every (professional) game, the rest of my career.”
Hence, Holbeck appreciates the broader significance of O’Connor’s story and the turnabout in his life. Through his own career Holbeck also understands the bitterness some players harbour when they ultimately finish their rugby career. Holbeck’s job at RUPA job is to nationally streamline initiatives addressing the welfare of players from the start and duration of their careers to transition into life long after rugby. Working through his Player Development Managers embedded within each team, his remit is broad. No case is the same and the consequences of a player’s pathway can be as varied as extreme. He has learned that through his own life as much as O’Connor’s whose career and life once looked to be on the brink. “James now is doing great things at the Reds in … leading young guys to do stuff away from the game,” says Holbeck.
“If we can get to that point, where the players are leading this program and [they] see the benefit in their mates doing better with their finance, their wellbeing, and their career, it's a self-perpetuating program. We appreciate it, that he's taken responsibilities for his life.
“That's what we're asking for our players. It's a lot to take, responsibility for … your life.
"We often call these players ‘boys’ or ‘girls’.’ But these are men and women. There are no excuses for a lot of the behaviour that goes on.
“We need to be held to account for the standards expected of us as a professional player; but also understanding our people are going to fall over and make mistakes.
“How do we, as a game, help them understand that the consequences are for their own good and that we're trying to help them become better humans?
“Our mantra is: ‘Better People. Better Players. Better Lives.’ How do we create these players so that become better people? As a game and maybe sport, generally, we haven't always held people to account for their behaviours. [When] it's a one-off, we think, ‘Oh, I'll let them off this time,’ but that doesn't help anyone. It doesn't help the player.
“As a game, we have a responsibility to the public. [But as a player you are responsible] to your family, yourself and your teammates. So, hold yourself to account and work it out. If you've done damage, you need to fix up your mess and pay the price for your actions.”
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Holbeck believes Australian rugby administrators still have a responsibility to help them understand this: “from the day they come in … A lot of guys aren't willing to hear the message of self-accountability until the end of their career.I didn’t fully embrace it either.”
For some players, it still requires a strong dose of reality to understand that the allure of their status as Test, Super Rugby or Australian Sevens players will only glow for so long after their playing careers reach their end.
“Some players think “work's going to fall in their laps,” says Holbeck; that is, until they “realize I actually just need to get a job to support my family. Sometimes it's when they do that, [have] that attitude change, that the better job comes … it's almost like they have to become humbled first.”
It was a lesson that Holbeck learned. After retiring, he took a television commentary position for the 2003 Rugby World Cup, but was not kept on. He then worked in an IGA shopping centre on the Gold Coast owned by former Brumbies teammate Peter Ryan. He could not activate the till until after a 16 year-old store assistant showed him how to do it. He also struggled with the perceived sense of him being seen as a ‘down and out’ former Wallaby.“You're not necessarily going to step into a great business development role, he says. “There's going to be a process of time where you have to go and sit in front of people. You might have to do a job that you feel is below you, but that's in a sense good for you.
“You're going to feel stupid. You're going to struggle, but if this is the path you’re on, it's a really important part of your life. Just levelling yourself out. You don't want people to fall away to nothing. You just want [retired players] to find a different identity in a different direction where they feel appreciated for what they do.”
Holbeck is fortunate that he is able to use the harsh lessons learned during his career now with RUPA. “I was studying psychology,” he recalls of his latter rugby days.
“I was working on that area of my life. We had a player development manager, Sue Crawford, a psychologist. I would have long chats with her. She was really good at harnessing and honing me in the direction I should take.”
The real challenge for any elite player is transitioning to life out of rugby, rather than getting into it. Holbeck admits it took him some time. “I worked as a player development manager, but I was looking at other things, a PhD in skill acquisition,” he says.
“Ultimately, I didn't finish that … I started going back into schools and speaking around mental toughness or resilience, character development … there was a massive need for [it in] year nine boys.
“There's a disengagement (in schools) when they get to 14 years of age. Some of it is about masculinity, identity. I was targeting that and then got called to do some work at Classic Wallabies and then RUPA.
“Justin [Harrison, RUPA CEO] said, ‘We need to be more structured in what we present as an organization.’ Part of that was a disjoint between clubs and Australia and our workers. So, the focus of my role has been to find a way of bringing all those stakeholders together.
“COVID has helped in that sense because we're all short of resources. We're all needing to pull together … But we still need to be really more direct with how we look after our players. And we have to provide environments where all of us are continuously called to be better.”
Better people. Better players. Better lives.