‘I think he’ll do wonders for Australian rugby.’
Brian Cohen was the man who was mistaken for the messiah in Monty Python’s 1979 film, Life of Brian.
No, this article isn’t another Israel Folau piece. It’s about a boy – now a man – who was on the scene before the global rugby union population had heard the name Folau.
O’Connor made his Super Rugby debut for the Western Force aged 17 and became the second youngest Wallaby in history aged 18, both in 2008.
The following year he was named rookie of the year by both the Force and the Wallabies. Capable of playing across the back line but with a preference for No.12, the boy wonder was hailed as a potential messiah for Australian rugby.
O’Connor was a leading light out west and became part of the self-appointed Three Amigos alongside Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale.
Growing up in the UK, this phase of Australian rugby captured my attention. In the team were players who did such visually exciting things that few others would attempt. This had already begun before O’Connor burst on to the scene but his entry suggested that there was the potential for an unknown kid to shoot to fame based on talent and raw enthusiasm.
Australia at the time may not have been the most successful group but they were fun to watch, and the controversies added to this appeal as they had a slight edge that England, New Zealand and South Africa never let the public see.
James O’Connor could have played for any of the Tri-Nations teams. He chose the gold jersey and promptly scored a hat trick on debut against Italy. Everything was on an upward trajectory for the precocious Queenslander, racking up 44 caps by age 23, including starting at fly-half throughout the Lions series in 2013.
During that series, O’Connor and Kurtley Beale were photographed in a fast food place at 4.00am. He was subsequently disciplined with a warning over his conduct.
Later that year is when it all started to come crashing down around the young man. He was ejected from Perth airport for being intoxicated and was unable to catch his flight to Bali following Australia’s victory over Argentina. Then he was dropped for the tour to South Africa and Argentina a week later, and his contract with the ARU – now RA – was ‘mutually’ terminated with a year remaining.
Without an ARU contract or a Super Rugby franchise, and after an appearance for West Harbour, O’Connor went globetrotting.
First stop, Reading in England, signing for London Irish until the end of the Premiership season. Brian Ashton, director of rugby at the time, hailed the player as someone who “will help us win some rugby matches”. They didn’t win many, finishing third bottom of the league.
At this point, Mourad Boudjellal – the vocal owner of French club Toulon – came calling. The club had just retained the Heineken Cup, beating Saracens 23-6 in the final. With players such as Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana, Drew Mitchell, Ali Williams and Carl Hayman, O’Connor could finally shine in a team blessed with talent matching his.
The move didn’t exactly go to plan. A combination of injuries, controversies and French training program limited his impact.
For 2015 and a shot at attending the World Cup, O’Connor returned to Australia, signing for his home state the Queensland Reds on a two-year deal.
However, ‘personal matters’ disrupted his season and he was not included by Michael Cheika on the plane. The Reds subsequently exercised a release clause in his contract – and he was, again, left to look abroad for some rugby.
Back to Toulon, and this time joined by one of his amigos, Quade Cooper. In February 2016, rumours emerged that James O’Connor had suffered a heart attack on the bus back from a victory over Oyonnax.
Initially treated by team-mates, he was taken to hospital, later responding to reports blaming hypoglycemia and fatigue. He continued on his journey in the south of France, playing regularly without pulling up any trees, until February 2017.
O’Connor and team-mate Ali Williams were arrested for buying and possession of drugs. The Wallaby was reportedly charged with possession and fined for the offence. Boudjellal unsurprisingly took a dim view of this behaviour and confirmed that O’Connor’s contract would not be renewed following the conclusion of the 2016/17 season.
Seemingly untouchable again, where would a lost soul like O’Connor’s turn for redemption?
Cue, Steve Diamond.
Who? I hear you cry. The tough, uncompromising rirector of rugby at Sale Sharks, the one-time champions of English rugby based in north-west England.
A well traveled if unheralded coach, Diamond was recently anointed a bully by one particular journalist. The man did have experience redeeming precocious talents, having given Danny Cipriani – once of the Melbourne Rebels – the platform to relaunch his domestic career and international ambitions.
There are some parallels between O’Connor and Cipriani. Both were hailed from a young age, and both have been subject to close scrutiny and controversy in their home countries. Talented, without doubt, neither player has been given or taken opportunities to become key components on the international stage.
Signing a three-year deal with Sale, O’Connor spent much of his first season injured or recovering from injury.
In his appearances that season, however, he was solid, showing some flashes of former quality.
The 2018/19 season was one where the new James O’Connor came to the fore. Deeply involved in a new-age wellness company Saviour World, O’Connor frequently posted to social media clips and photos of meditation, breathing exercises and additional work-outs.
Injury did disrupt his season, but appearances were more consistent and of improving quality. Settling at No.12 or No.13 in the Sale team, his appearances were solid when available, and again had moments of pure quality.
There is no doubting that he still has the kicking and distribution skills to play in the centres, and his vision and footwork would probably favour the No.12 shirt. But injuries appear to have taken away some of that top-end speed he had in his younger days, meaning that playing in the back three or at No.13 in the international arena is probably out of the question.
It may have taken time but maybe the utility back has now found his position, and would you believe it, it is the very position that he said he preferred back in 2009.
He also now appears to have adapted to professional rugby and has matured with age. Maybe his case is one of too much too soon. Maybe he didn’t have the right people around him in the past. Maybe there were too many amigos during his breakthrough.
Regardless of these factors, the opportunity that has now presented itself could see O’Connor perform on the world stage in both the 15-man code and the shorter format sevens if rumours of an Olympic team bid are to be believed.
As a Sale Sharks fan, I have seen the struggles of his time in Greater Manchester. I have also witnessed his class and growing maturity. He will be missed by the club and its fans, with whom he had a close bond, but the time is probably right for the man to return to the land he left as a boy and show just what it is he can do.
The messiah he was considered. A pariah he became.
But James O’Connor could become something else if his return is successful.