A couple of weeks ago, after the Brumbies had beaten the Queensland Reds to kick off the 2020 Super Rugby season on the last weekend in January, I found myself in my usual post-match mode.
I was going from player to player to coach to player in search of on-field interviews for ABC Grandstand.
I’ve been doing this for years and years now, and it remains a great part of my job as a sideline commentator. Some guys are up for a chat and some just aren’t – even guys who have just won.
But in all my time doing this, I’m not sure too many players have opened up more than Reds midfielder James O’Connor.
As everyone has seen in the weeks subsequent, O’Connor has been all too happy to speak about the mental transformation he’s been through over the last few years. It’s been a transformation that has seen him return to Australian rugby a very different man from the hugely talented young-player who years ago spoke of a change of Super Rugby franchise not in terms of what it would do for his game, but what it would do for his brand.
Of course, this isn’t the first time he’s returned to Australia trying to reclaim his standing as a Wallaby. But it’s fair to say his third crack at professional rugby at home has gone significantly better than his second.
Just on Saturday night, after the Reds thumped the Sunwolves at home in Brisbane to record their first win of the season, O’Connor had the Fox Sports commentary team in silent awe as he spoke of his time away from Australian rugby.
He spoke of a time which included the low point of an alleged cocaine possession charge which cost him his contract with Toulon in France in 2017, and his rebuild as a man and as a rugby player with Sale in the English Premiership.
“I’m not going to lie, when I left last time, I was a broken man,” O’Connor said to former Queensland and Wallabies centre Tim Horan post-match.
“The work I did with Saviour World re-created me, and now I’m back. I’m loving my footy, and I’m here to do some good stuff.”
It was a brief insight that piqued Horan’s colleague Greg Martin’s interest: “What did they do? We heard Sale sent you off to Norway and Iceland, what did it do?” he asked.
“It’s an organisation, an underground movement of men, it’s called Saviour World,” O’Connor offered.
“We did a lot of deprivation camps, and I guess for me it was just breaking my ego, and finding what my purpose was in life, and why I’m here and why I want to play footy, because for a long time it was all about me, and I lost my way.”
Martin: “Can you talk to Nick Kyrgios?”
O’Connor (laughing): “Connect us up, it’d be a pleasure. He’s got a lot of talent.”
Saviour World was and still is an organisation I don’t know a lot about, but the difference in O’Connor is very apparent.
The group is described as providing provide ‘knowledge for men’ on its website, which appears almost Japanese anime in appearance, and its practices include sitting shirtless in a circle while exhaling heavily, lugging heavy rocks up and down on the sand, and drinking a lemon and apple cider vinegar concoction known as ‘Morning Juice’.
O’Connor for some time now has regularly posted about Saviour World on his Instagram account, and has shared videos of himself taking part in ceremonies and activities with other athletes including English rugby player Danny Cipriani and American surfer Laird Hamilton, among others.
O’Connor travelled to Iceland in 2018 to take part in a training camp with the group, and took to Instagram after this experience to outline its effect on him and of his new-found and “deep desire to play for the Wallabies again,” which I don’t mind admitting to rather extreme scepticism upon reading.
“I have been pushed into some very uncomfortable situations by Saviour World through the use of sensory deprivation, heat exhaustion and deep states of meditation,” O’Connor wrote at the time.
“My reaction to each stimulus has forced me to face myself and my darkness in a way that I have never felt before.”
Whatever you might think of what he’s subjected himself to, and of this kind of self-help which O’Connor has clearly devoted himself to, you can’t ignore the transformation we now see in the man himself.
This was what stood out to me when I began speaking with O’Connor back on the first weekend of the season.
The Reds had just lost by three after leading 17-7 at halftime, overrun in the second half as the Brumbies scored three tries in twenty minutes.
But where the O’Connor of old probably wouldn’t have done the interview to start with, the 2020 edition was only too happy to speak openly and honestly about moments in the game.
Here’s the interview in full, which went for just over four minutes – the average post-match chat rarely extends past two.
BM: James, your first game back in a Queensland jersey, is it a case of re-acquainting yourself with Super Rugby, and how did that go for you tonight?
JOC: Super Rugby’s definitely the fastest game on the planet. It’s attacking focus, and I guess the only difference now from when I last played is that defences are bringing a huge amount of line speed. The split decisions make a huge difference.
BM: We noted tonight you’ve still got the big blokes running at you – Tevita Kuridrani was making a beeline at stages – but you’re bringing them down. Your connection with Jordan Petaia, you’ve obviously done a lot of work on that?
JOC: We actually haven’t spent that much time together. He was injured at one stage, and then I was.
He’s a natural athlete, reads the game well. It was a bit disappointing for tonight, because they just man-marked him, they were putting two on him every time he touched the ball… which helped me out actually, because it gave me some half breaks at the line.
But the more we can build that combination, especially with Isaac (Lucas) in at 10 and Bryce (Hegarty) at the back, and we’ve got Henry Speight and those boys, we’re starting to get a good connection there as you saw.
Once we started to build phases, we looked dangerous and we controlled a big chunk of that game.
BM: Your young backrow was well and truly on top for probably the first 50 minutes. There’s a lot of work going on at the breakdown and you’re getting good reward for that…
JOC: Oh, massively. We’ve got a great pack. You saw it in the scrum as well, it’s an international front row the Brumbies have, and I thought our guys got on top of them. ‘Nella’ (Taniela Tupou) had a huge game, so did JP (Smith).
That’s us; we have the potential, we have the team there, and we’re starting to get the performances as you saw in the trial games.
It’s just about sticking to it. It’s a long season, we’re about to go on tour, so you’re only going to get tighter, so now is the chance to just excited and play footy.
BM: I can really sense the enjoyment in your voice when you talk about it, suddenly at the ripe old age of 29 you’re a veteran in that backline – how much are you enjoying being back in Australia playing with these guys?
JOC: Massively. For me, I went to the other side of the world and I did go through a dark period.
I lost rugby for a long time. Now it’s a gift for me.
I can’t speak more highly about a group called Saviour World, it literally helped me turn everything around, and now every time I touch a footy, every time I go into training, I’m enjoying it; I’m excited.
It’s like, ‘how good of a job is this?’ I get to literally play all around the world and do something I love, so yeah, I’m excited.
I just want to play more footy.
BM: And you’ll get the chance again next weekend at Ellis Park on tour. We can’t really call you guys a young side anymore, because a lot of you have played a lot together, but it’s a building side, definitely…
JOC: Yeah, and that’s the thing. It’s young in age but in terms of Super Rugby and in terms of professionalism as well, the group’s been together, they know how each other play.
As you would have seen tonight, once we got going, we’re a hard team to stop.
We’ve got ball carriers who can offload and beat defenders one-on-one, we’ve got a great balance on the field. The more we stay connected, the better.
Going on tour, obviously two tough teams, but it’s an awesome opportunity for us to get away from home and just get really tight as a group.
BM: Hard luck tonight, because you played better and deserved more than the one point you got out of it. Best of luck on tour…
JOC: No, no problems, appreciate it, thank you.
The interview was shared around the Grandstand network, with O’Connor’s words featuring throughout programming and news reporting of the game over the weekend that followed.
I received a couple of emails praising my ability to get him to open up, but I never felt like I was pushing him for an answer. Everything he said was made with great eye contact and expression and could only have been genuine. O’Connor answered honestly, because he speaks honestly.
But on listening back to the interview for this column, the thing that stood out to me was how often he spoke of teammates and their performance. It was only when I asked him about the enjoyment he’s getting from his rugby again did he speak of himself and his own perspective.
I’ve interviewed James O’Connor in the past, and I can’t recall that kind of outward focus coming from him previously. Indeed, he’s the first to admit that before he went through his ‘dark periods’ he was incredibly self-centred and self-absorbed.
Now he speaks of going home after games to watch not just a replay of the game he’s just played, but a replay of next week’s opponents as well.
Even now that he’s playing flyhalf, and Lucas and Hegarty find themselves on the bench for reasons I presume Brad Thorn knows, there is a very different approach to his game, a focus that has him playing for the players around him.
And that’s being returned – have a look back at the lengths Henry Speight went to get that offload away on the inside, after O’Connor had run the inside line in support.
For what it’s worth, I still think that inside centre is where O’Connor might be of most benefit, both in attack and in defence, and for Queensland and the Wallabies.
I find it quite strange the lengths the Reds went to, to bring Lucas through to Super Rugby, only to jettison those plans after that first game in Canberra.
But O’Connor is certainly doing a job for them at 10 at the moment, and the enjoyment he’s getting from the game is impossible to ignore.
And more is the point, the on-field results of that transformation from the selfish, if precociously talented young player into the selfless 29-year-old we now see are impossible not to enjoy.
Watching the Reds play is worth it for that fact alone.