When asked if he minds the current phase of his international career being described as a “second act”, James O’Connor cannot help but laugh. “Oh, I like that!” he says.
O’Connor’s two-part career is neatly summed up by his appearance for the Barbarians this weekend against Samoa: his first outing for the invitational XV came in 2010 in a famous win against South Africa, when O’Connor was still very much in the prodigy phase of his rugby career.
He is 31 now, but it is not simply the passing years that have matured him. O’Connor, it is fair to say, has had his share of dramas since making his Test debut aged just 18 in 2008. Injuries and controversies – most notably being arrested by French police on suspicion of attempting to buy cocaine in 2017 (he was never charged) and admitting to alcohol and prescription drug abuse – led to a six-year hiatus in his international career from 2013-2019.
It was a bleak period, but the intervening time has at least allowed him to understand how and why it happened. “I didn’t feel like the pressure came until I had been at the top for a while. At the start you are like a sponge taking everything in. The pressure for me came when I opened every door and I started destroying myself because you are always looking for that next high and, if it is not coming on the rugby field, you look for it off it,” he tells Telegraph Sport.
O’Connor’s years in the international wilderness did, at least, allow him to broaden his rugby horizons, through spells at London Irish, Toulon and Sale Sharks, the club he credits with helping to set him back on the right path. “That’s where I re-found my love for rugby and started my second life,” he says.
As well as re-building himself as a player under then director of rugby Steve Diamond, he also began life-altering work with Saviour World, a Scottish-based men’s mentoring organisation set up by Englishman Ollie Pryce-Tidd. O’Connor says Saviour World “is almost a way of life for men in [making sure] you are consistently growing and moving forward. I can’t predict the future but, without the help of the guys from Saviour World, I wouldn’t have been on a good trajectory.”
Both Kyle Sinckler and Danny Cipriani have credited Saviour World with helping their careers. “One thing about being a man is that you have to experience it yourself,” O’Connor adds. “Lots of people told me how to do the right things but I needed to make my own mistakes, which I wish I had learnt after the first two rather than the first 20.”
The culture at Sale, overseen by Diamond, was hard but helpful to O’Connor, who thrived on being able to channel his energy exclusively on his rugby, away from off-field distractions.
“I think it was because I was so far from home – my focus was fully on rugby but not in a way that it was too demanding or thinking about it too much,” he says. “I found a really nice balance at Sale where I could train hard, I enjoyed life away from footie and I really enjoyed turning up for training every day.”
Not that everything was to the taste of a player who grew up on the Gold Coast.
“A lot of the rugby was tough – I am not going to lie. Living up in Manchester, my last season at Sale, there were only two games where it was dry,” he says with another chuckle.
“But in terms of my purpose off the rugby field, it was about, ‘What am I waking up for? Why am I playing rugby?’ For a long time my whole reason for playing rugby was just because I was known as James O’Connor the rugby player.”
Since a successful return to the international fold, including a strong performance at the 2019 World Cup, O’Connor captained the Reds to the Super Rugby Australia title this year and has signed a deal which keeps him in Australia at least until the 2023 World Cup.
O’Connor gives more credit to another Englishman for this second period of success – Dave Alred, the performance coach perhaps best known for his work with Jonny Wilkinson to help transform him into a place-kicking fly-half.
“Dave has been unreal. He has helped redefine my whole game. When I went back to Australia, I was a centre and I hadn’t kicked a ball in years,” he says. “We literally started from scratch.”