Once upon a time, James O’Connor was Australian Rugby’s golden child and seen as the future of the Wallabies.
He could play multiple positions and was an excitement machine – with the school boy good looks and a marketing gold mine.
However, O’Connor’s career and his life took a turn for the worst which turned into a spiral.
Speaking to The Australian, O’Connor opened up about his battles.
His life hit a low point in 2017 when he spent two nights in prison. O’Connor languished, frightened, in a Paris cell. He shared a thin blanket, one mattress, with three men in torrid, stinking conditions.
He saw one man smear faeces across the walls of their cell and another scream in rage. He then watched another inmate strike the screaming man in the back of the head and “drop him” to the floor.
“My time in there haunted me,” O’Connor says. “It felt like a medieval dungeon. It was horrible.”
O’Connor was stood beside fellow rugby player Ali Williams, who was buying cocaine outside a Paris nightclub when they pair were busted by police.
O’Connor was never charged and was exonerated completely, but still found himself in a Paris prison cell for two daunting nights.
He walked out jail with a harsh reality check.
“OK, shit, I actually need help.’’ O’Connor remembered thinking.
However, nothing really changed. He lost his passion for rugby, he was in constant pain and his ego was out of control. He turned to prescription drugs and the drink to numb all that physical and emotional pain.
It would take another year before he would finally find the love of the game and life again.
At 19, O’Connor was making big money with a contract in the millions at the Western Force, and admittedly his ego growing.
O’Connor said he would turn up to restaurants, go to pay the bill and be told it was taken care of already. At nightclubs it was free drinks all night. There were women throwing themselves at him, a charmed life for a teenager.
“I was always chasing pleasure,” O’Connor said. “I had never seen money like it. Then every door started opening for me. I would go to a restaurant and there would be no bill. Your ego kicks in. You think you are untouchable.
“It became no longer about the rugby, or about the purity of the craft. It becomes about after the game. You play well, so afterwards you will get noticed … what drove me to play football as a young man, to simply be the best, started to dissipate. The lines got skewed.”
It began to go down hill for O’Connor quickly though, his failed move to the Melbourne Rebels was an indication of how bad things were getting.
“It never clicked,” O’Connor says. “The rugby style they were playing, I knew from the start that I had made a mistake.”
He had fallen from a star at the Force, to having the Rebels captain Stirling Mortlock having the final say.
“And that didn’t sit too well with me at the time,” O’Connor says. O’Connor acknowledged he could be quite the “little shit” when he was at Melbourne.
“I think people possibly thought I had turned into a little brat,” O’Connor says. “I just didn’t have the intellect to communicate my feelings at this stage of my life. I didn’t know how to have an open conversation with someone. I thought if you don’t see it my way, then you are not on my side.”
At the Rebels, his training wasn’t up to standard. In games he was a step off. His body started breaking down, there were niggling hamstring and ankle injuries, then he suffered a shocking injury to his liver. His mind was tired. He was on a “cocktail” of anti-inflammatories, penicillin and sleeping tablets to come down from the highs of a game.
“Physically my body was deteriorating, I was still a powerful, young man, but I wasn’t as powerful as what I had known my whole life,” O’Connor says. “I was angry, frustrated, I wasn’t performing, people were coming down on me. I couldn’t get away with what I was before. It felt like the walls were coming in on me. That’s when I started becoming … a bit darker.”
At the age of 23 O’Connor had 44 Wallabies caps to his name, he was spiritually and physically broken so he uprooted and headed to Toulon.
The desired fix to his problems wasn’t there to be found.
“It got worse,” O’Connor says. “Australian rugby held me accountable to turning up, but as soon as I left, there was nothing left to strive for, without the Wallabies. I didn’t love rugby any more. I was just doing a couple of good things in each game, here and there to feed my ego. Enough for people to say; ‘yeah, he’s still got it’, but there was no passion in it any more.”
“There was no big low, the whole thing was a low. I was just at the point where every element of my life was breaking down. It was almost like my soul was crying.”
O’Connor saw his unfortunate stint in jail as a wake up call.
“I was there, I wasn’t caught with anything on me, but I was still living that life of going out and making the wrong decisions,” O’Connor says.
O’Connor attributed his turn around in part to meeting “Ollie” from men’s wellbeing organisation Saviour World.
“He broke me physically first, then we started again, and then he broke me mentally, to get rid of that sooky kid that would feel like everyone is against him,” he says. “The process we went through was a completely different world, it blew me away, then I just felt so good.”
O’Connor now wants his story to be not just a cautionary tale but an inspiration for people who need help.
“I also want to use my rugby to inspire people, playing the way I play, on instinct and no stress,” O’Connor says. “Also I want people to see: ‘He was in the dumps, he was partying’. Everyone knows there were 20 headlines of me doing the wrong thing, but if you put that energy into something good you can do something good with it. My good work is playing good rugby, but also helping others with this platform.”