In an exclusive interview, Reds and Wallabies utility back JAMES O'CONNOR talks about how he managed to fight back from rock bottom, his South African connection and why he is chasing team glory rather than individual plaudits in Wallaby gold.
Sport24 asked: How have you been handling these uncertain times?
James O’Connor: The lockdown has actually been a really good time for me. I’m thriving and doing better than ever before. I’m probably the fittest I’ve ever been and mentally, I’m engaged. I can focus for 10 to 12 hours, whereas before I could only focus for two to three hours and would then need a pick-me-up. I can literally keep going because I have trained myself to be able to do that. This time has allowed me to improve different aspects of my game. I have wanted to improve my kicking for a while and have been working with kicking coach Dave Alred, who has worked with likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Jonathan Sexton and Beauden Barrett. It’s been pretty incredible working with Dave two to three times a week over six weeks. In terms of my overall game, I’m feeling good. When I was 20, I thought I knew the game of rugby and had a finished product. Now I’m a student of the game and am itching to test out the new skills I have picked up. To offer an analogy, before I was playing checkers and now I’m beginning to play chess. I’m not saying I’m a master, but I’m enjoying the game… We return to official training on Monday, in groups of 10, as per Covid-19 protocol in Australia. We will have a four-week training block, a further two weeks of contact and then it’s looking like we will return to play at the start of July.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up the darkest days you had?
James O’Connor: For a while, I was just floating along and there was no real meaning to my life. Rugby wasn’t fulfilling me anymore and going out also wasn’t. There was just nothing of substance in my life and I chased the dark wolf as far as it could go. I got to a point where I was in so much pain, I just wanted to quit life and rugby and go live on an island. I had so many ankle and knee injuries. At one stage when I was still playing at Toulon, I couldn’t train all week and then on game day I was injected with local anaesthetic and had my ankle strapped up twice just so that I could take the field. Then after the game, I couldn’t walk for two to three days. It led to a downward spiral because the fact that I couldn’t train meant I was getting weaker. When you are weaker and a bit depressed you start binge-eating on junk food, watching more TV and it affects your mind. Once you get stuck, it’s so easy to keep going down. I wanted to numb the pain by drinking alcohol and partying. At that time I didn’t speak to anyone until I had had a few beers, but connecting on that level wasn’t real. I started living a lie. I pretended to be this polished version of myself, but it was so far from my truth. It was almost as if I was acting in a movie… I got to a point where I wasn’t playing rugby for the right reasons and wanted to run away from everything. They say you need money, women and power, but those things weren’t fulfilling me. I misused my power and I was quite self-destructive for a while. There were many times I wanted to quit the game, but I was much too coward to because I didn’t know what I would do if I didn’t have rugby. For at least a year-and-a-half, I tried to get myself out of that hole. I would be good for four weeks and then fall back. An injury would come and then I would lose track and become a bit loose. I lost all my accountability and discipline. It wasn’t that I didn’t see a way out, but I didn’t possess the knowledge.
Sport24 asked: What led to the significant turnaround in your life?
James O’Connor: I had seen a psychologist and a psychiatrist, but it wasn’t until I met my point of contact at Saviour World that I could see it was working. I now see privilege in the pain. Someone far wiser than me drew the analogy of hot and cold water when comparing pleasure with pain. Pain and pleasure are the same elements but on different ends of the spectrum. If you are not enjoying something and are in pain, you can sit there and become a victim or do something about it and use the pain to get you moving again. I manned up and tackled my challenges head on. I used the pain as fuel to create a better life for myself. When I jumped on board with Saviour World, I started learning from scratch and it changed everything for me. I have learned that you literally attract your life. If you are constantly thinking negative thoughts then you create that reality and that becomes your life. When you have the knowledge, it actually doesn’t take that much to start moving. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not about hitting it hard quickly but rather about living a life you can maintain and keep moving forward. It’s about making small changes and taking little steps every day. Before you know it, you have momentum and can dig yourself out of the mental hole that you put yourself in. When you find your why for doing something it can kick-start everything. I rediscovered my hunger and excitement to wake up every morning and attack the day. I’m now accountable and move forward every day. After suffering a spate of injuries, I rebuilt the physical so that I could hold more energy and also improved my diet and balance to my training. There is also a spiritual element whether you want to call it God or consciousness. It’s all about connecting to something greater than yourself and looking outwards.
Sport24 asked: Have you come full circle by returning to play in Australia?
James O’Connor: I am at a different state of awareness than when I was playing in Australia at the age of 22. I’m at the point now where there is a possibility that if I keep improving my game, I could be wearing the Wallabies No.10 jersey. There is still a lot of work to put in, which is why I have been hustling so hard during this isolation period. I never shied away from a challenge before, but having a second chance would have overawed me. Now it’s all about the possibilities for me. I’m part of the PONI group (players of national interest) and I’m genuinely excited about the prospect of playing for the Wallabies. (O’Connor has played 52 Tests for Australia of which he has started 41). I’ve had a couple conversations with (Wallabies coach) Dave Rennie and have met him once. It’s seem like he is an open communicator and I was pretty impressed with the detail he broke my game down to. Some of the detail was so spot-on to the point where I thought to myself: ‘He has done his homework!’ If he has done the SWOT analysis on me, he’s done it on all the players. He understands how each of us plays, how we can improve and use our strengths to feed into the game plan and make the team better. It’s tough with him still in the UK with the restrictions, but we have all been linking up virtually and I’m looking forward to seeing what he brings… It would be nice to become a 100 Test-capped Wallaby and it’s doable if I play for another five years. However, I’m not going to commit to that because the way I now live is about the process rather than end-goal. I would rather give myself a target of winning a Bledisloe, a Rugby Championship or a World Cup. My current goals revolve around team success rather than individual accolades. It’s not about me winning Player of the Year and playing 100 Tests, but rather about the actual experience of achieving with people you have helped nurture and seen grow.
Sport24 asked: How did you feel when the Boks won the World Cup?
James O’Connor: My mum was born in New Zealand, but her grandparents were South African and her parents still live in South Africa. So that is my connection to South Africa. In terms of the World Cup, I was genuinely happy for the Springboks. At the time, I felt that if we couldn’t win I would be pleased if South Africa won the World Cup. As Siya Kolisi said, they were playing for something greater than themselves. You could just feel the energy and there was a whole nation behind them. The boys were literally playing for something bigger than rugby supporters. It was very powerful to be able to experience that when I was in Japan even though we weren’t involved in the final. I think the Springboks’ turnaround is credit to Rassie Erasmus. There are now a few videos coming out of the Springbok journey and how they got there and you can see that Rassie is a proud but very humble and open man. I watched his team talk the other day and thought to myself: ‘I could imagine being coached by this guy.’ He was saying, “Look, I don’t have all the answers and I want you to challenge me. If you feel there is a better way of doing things tell me because I want to get the best out of you as players. It’s about coming up with a simple game plan and all sticking to it. If everyone buys in, we will be unstoppable. We have the most powerful players in world rugby and if we get the best out of each other and enjoy it, we can and should win. But it’s about the experience and anything else is a bonus.” That is pretty powerful, and Rassie seems like someone you want to play for.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess South Africa’s flyhalf options?
James O’Connor: You have got some good talent at No.10 in South Africa and they all play very differently. Curwin Bosch, who I most recently played against, takes the ball to the line well, kicks very early and is prodigious off the tee. He’s in the mould of a traditional No.10 that wants to be good at everything. Incumbent Handré Pollard is a little bit like that as well but he’s got speed off the mark and a calmness about him. As an opponent, you can almost feel the players around him relax a little bit when he’s on the field. When it comes to Elton Jantjies, there aren’t many who can manipulate the back field and kick the way he can. He puts attacking moves together add can inject a bit of energy. As a top-notch 10, you need to step up and take the line on but, as a general rule, you must be able to see the bigger picture and how you can put your team in the best position possible. It’s about controlling the flow of the game, but at the same time putting your team first.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests. Who would you invite?
James O’Connor: I would invite Michael Jordan. Many of us at the Reds have been watching The Last Dance documentary series on Netflix. Physically, he was a freak, but he also brought the team together. The documentary shows how Jordan played devil’s advocate and manipulated the team for good by pumping his teammates up to reach his level. Jordan helped created the dynasty at the Chicago Bulls and it’s inspiring how he was on top for so long. I would also like to invite the late Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. I have been reading some of his stuff lately and he would have been an interesting guest over a meal. I would also really loved to have met Genghis Khan, Emperor of the Mongol Empire, and explored his mindset.