James O’Connor was almost just another number.
More than that, his remarkable story of redemption was almost never written.
The Wallaby playmaker’s story is one well told.
Golden boy of Australian rugby who goes off the rails and finds himself in a hellhole so deep that years after leaving the game Down Under in disgrace he ends up in a Parisian jail after a drug incident involving former All Black Ali Williams.
His comeback, which started with Savior World and continued under Steve Diamond at Sale, then went into turbocharge when O’Connor returned ahead of the World Cup. He has since made every post a winner, winning over the doubters with his leadership on and off the field.
Yet, until now, what was not known was that O’Connor almost died.
At least, that is what some of his teammates in the south of France believed when he had the first of two seizures on a bus following an away victory and some more celebrations on the way home to Toulon.
“I was in a dark place,” the 31-year-old said in an incredibly honest interview with RugbyPass Offload.
“I was taking everything – from prescription meds, to drugs to alcohol. I was trying to get on something every day when I was in France – abusing everything. ”
O’Connor, who for the best part of a decade had been burning the candle at both ends, said time caught up with him.
“I was still playing rugby but I was out often and a lot. I wasn’t sleeping much because we were on road trips, ”he continued.
“I had a little head knock after playing, then on the team bus we just got into it.
“I ended up having a seizure on the bus. It was hectic. I can’t remember so it wasn’t hectic for me, but it was pretty hectic after.
(I remember (former England outside back) Dylan Armitage was like, ‘Bro, I thought you had died.’ It was f *** ed.
“That was the first wake-up call where I was like right, I need to rein it in a bit. It was just ‘a bit’ at that stage. That’s where my life was at, man. “
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Except, it happened again.
“It wasn’t a head knock this time. I got tested, they did full examinations and were wondering why is this happening? O’Connor said.
“It was just that I was burnt out.
“The first one was I think a mixture drinking a lot, taking a lot and the head knock. The second one I was just so fatigued. ”
Georgian great Mamuka Gorgodze had to help lay O’Connor down flat during one of the incidents.
O’Connor also spoke openly about his infamous few nights in jail, where he ended up cuddling up to World Cup-winner Williams.
“We were out with a big group, having a really good time,” O’Connor said. “Ali went bought some, we came out and got arrested and we were in prison for three days.
“It was rough – f *** ing terrifying because no one spoke English in there. It was raw, man.
“First night someone shat on their hands and rubbed it on the wall. One guy was just screaming all night – top of his lungs just screaming. I was laying in there spooned up to Ali like ‘protect me’. “
While few clubs wanted a bar of O’Connor, including any Australian Super Rugby sides, Toulon and Sale Sharks were the only interested parties.
But O’Connor said he chose Sale, whose director of rugby was one of the hardest coaches in world rugby, because of Diamond and it was there that ballooning O’Connor knew he had to change his ways.
“The program I was doing was unheard of in rugby, he gave me the freedom,” O’Connor said.
“When I moved to Sale I stopped drinking, and when I did I bloated out. My liver starting crying ‘you abused me for a long time and now’ ‘
“I got pretty chubby. I was injured so I couldn’t run. I remember on the scale – and I’m not a tall man – I hit the 100 kilos.
“I was working with someone who was sorting my life out and I said, ‘Bro, what are you doing to me?’
“He said,‘ you’ve been abusing yourself for six years, this is the start of the process, you have to get all the toxins out ’. It was only two months I was like that but it just came on and it shocked me.
“When I met him I was like, f *** I need to sort my life out, can you help me?
“It was definitely a journey. I credit the work I did with him to getting back to Oz. It definitely kick started where I am now. I’ve done my own work since I’ve been back, seen other people who have advised my life in other ways but he helped me get started. “
O’Connor, who is expected to be included in Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squad next Sunday and has become a quality 10 after formally being a fleet-footed utility back, also opened up on his infamous night at a Perth Airport which ultimately led to the second youngest Wallaby of all time leaving Australian rugby.
The reborn playmaker said the incident was in fact a blessing in disguise.
“I needed that because I was drowning,” he said.
“If that didn’t happen I wouldn’t have got shown the door at Oz rugby, I wouldn’t have moved away and I would have kept drowning. Obviously it wasn’t the best circumstances and [now] I would communicate. But I didn’t know how to communicate with these men because I was still a child.
“Like a kid who hasn’t got his way he goes and sooks so then I’d just go get pissed and, whatever happened when I was pissed, I’d just be reckless.
“The airport thing was played up – it wasn’t like it was reported. But I switched my phone off – f *** who does that? Just fly to Bali, switch my phone off so no one could contact me for a week and a half. That’s the sort of thing I’d do because I was a child.
“It led to me leaving for overseas and finding myself and getting healthy. I wasn’t in a good state. I can’t even remember it, that’s how loose I was, my missus told me what happened.
“There was a muck up in the seats and we weren’t sitting next to each other and I blew up. The police were walking past and escorted us to the next desk were my partner booked the next flight.
“It was reported I was kicked out of the airport and handcuffed but it wasn’t the case. They [the police] were actually really good. They looked after me. I’m not bitter about that now. Would I do it now? No I wouldn’t, but I can laugh at it because I think ‘what was I thinking?’ It was a cry for help, because I was struggling. ”
O’Connor missed the majority of the trans-Tasman component of Super Rugby Pacific due to a series of hamstring injuries.
His absence was telling in the Reds’ fall down the rankings and ultimately their quarter-final exit on Friday.
O’Connor says he is targeting next year’s World Cup as his international swan song.
He says he has yet to work out whether he will continue playing in Australia or move to Japan, or perhaps the Major League competition in America.
But the gifted playmaker says he is open to coaching in the future and can see himself becoming a player-coach in the immediate future.
For now though, O’Connor has another chapter to write in his remarkable career.
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78. For further information about depression, contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.