James O’Connor is the youngest player to debut in Super Rugby (17 years old) and is the second youngest to represent Australia (18 years old). He currently plays for the Queensland Reds and Wallabies and is an advocate for wellbeing organisation, Saviour World.
Tell me a little bit about yourself
My parents are Kiwis but I was born in the Gold Coast. They’ve moved back to New Zealand now.
When I was about five, we moved to New Zealand until I was about 12 years old. My dad was a minister over there and when he finished up, we moved back to Australia. We lived in Te Atatu Peninsula and most of my family, like all of my cousins, are still there – they mostly live in Papatoetoe, Manurewa, and Manukau.
My mum’s side of the family is South African as well but I’d say I’m Australian.
I’m 29 now, getting on. I play for the Queensland Reds and the Wallabies. I’ve spent a little bit of time being a student of the game all around the world – half of that was my decision and the other half wasn’t because I was stupid when I was younger.
So, I ended up moving to London when I was 23, played a year there, then I moved to France. I played with some of the greats of the game there – Johnny Wilkinson was doing some coaching there and had just finished up so he was like a player/coach, Matt Giteau, Ma’a Nonu, Ali Williams, Bakkies Botha – all of those kinds of guys.
Went over to Toulon, had some success there, well quite a bit actually, playing in a team of men. I always played in teams with a couple of men but these guys were all accomplished, they had been there and done that, played for their countries. I went in there and wanted to learn. But I hit a wall there – started drinking a bit, partying a bit too much and my footy started to be affected, physically and then mentally – my state of mind was making me struggle on the field.
So from there, I moved back to the UK to where it rained all day. But it was probably the best decision I made for me and the missus. I had to learn to adapt, it was good to go there and create a whole new world for ourselves. That was a special time actually, a rebuilding phase. And that’s around the time I started working with Saviour World. I hired them to help me.
How did you overcome your challenges with Saviour World?
Because of all the decisions I had made, first, I was physically unhealthy. I lost my spleen when I was 15. And your spleen is the first filter for your blood so for me to function well the advice I was given was that I needed to take penicillin twice a day, 250mls each time so the whole time I was playing rugby, I was taking penicillin. What it does is it kills bad bacteria but it also kills good bacteria so I wasn’t taking nutrients out of food. I was literally getting sick every couple of weeks and when you get sick, after a while your work rate slows down so my body wasn’t working how it should. I was just relying on my talent to get me through and that’s when I started to lose that hunger to play rugby.
I felt stuck and on top of that when you feel stuck, some men look for other means to escape, like me, so I started going out more, partying more, starting numbing myself through alcohol, and it was a downward spiral from there which I couldn’t pull myself out of.
I tried many times to get moving, I could get moving for a couple of weeks but it wouldn’t last, I didn’t have the discipline to stick with it. I think that’s one of the issues in the world today, people don’t have discipline because everything is so easy to get. You can get easy gratification instantly and I was probably the worst for that and because I had a bit of cash on me as well, anything I wanted, I’d just buy it. I wasn’t working for it, I just kept looking for little pleasures.
So, the first thing I did with Saviour World, is I got my body right – started fasting, stopped taking anti inflammatories and painkillers and penicillin, stopped taking all of that and just let my body start healing naturally, which took probably six months or so.
I started bloating out, I got pretty chunky at one stage, and l started asking what is going on and my coach from Saviour World reminded me that fat holds all the toxins so my body was at a point where it was healthy enough to start getting rid of all the toxins in my body but it just meant I had to be chubby for a while so yeah. I also stopped taking stimulants so got off coffee – started lemon water a few times during the week, started eating to help my body rebuild naturally so once we got past the physical, the fun began.
The part of breaking the ego. The identity I had created to, I guess, survive in the world. And I had quite a few because I was adaptable. So I’ve always been like that since I was young because when you come through the system – I came through quite young, you’re not on the level of mixing with mates who are 17, 18 – you’re mixing with guys in the team who are 30 or so and professional staff, and so by the time I was 20 I was getting wheeled out to deal with CEOs of companies, so I kinda became the face of a rugby team and because I could speak well enough for a rugby player, they started putting me in rooms where I had to hold my own so I almost would play a character where I would become sort of like them.
And also the way I play rugby, when I step over that line, not so much at training, I just have that attitude – I’ve always had it – where no one can touch me. That mentality ‘this is my house’. Because I was always smaller, I just had to create that image, where I would put on my super hero cape. On the field is where I was my most comfortable, so because I was playing all of these characters, so like four different characters to appease different people, I forgot who I actually was, outside of rugby, and outside of business and outside of everything. I was confused.
Once you’re fatigued you can’t hold on to the game you’re playing. You may know some people when you’re around them and they’re full of energy, they act differently when they’re tired. So they almost have this game where everything is good and this and that and then once you’ve been around them for a while, they can’t play the game anymore, they get tired and you see cracks in their armour and their story line.
So yeah the physical stuff we did a lot of heat therapy, oxygen stuff. And other times, we were hiking up mountains, and sometimes my coach would put me in a shit pair of shoes and say we’re climbing up a mountain, and you have to hold the bag. And it would be a five hour hike. I can do that stuff now, I really love it. But when he first did it, I thought it was such bullshit, and wondered why I had to hold the bag. So basically I had this sooky kid in me that wanted everything to be fair and didn’t want to hike the mountain. But he eventually just broke me and I said fine.
When did you know you had to change and how did you do it?
Well you see with me I had about four or five rock bottoms, I wasn’t listening – the way it’s kind of been explained to me is, rock bottom and depression isn’t a bad thing. Depression is actually a great thing because your soul, body and mind is recognising that your heart is not living your true life you’re meant to.
So for me I was caught up in attachment, pleasures and all of the stuff that isn’t real, or the flashy stuff. The illusion of the game that everyone is trying to play – where you’re told you need money and power, you need women, you need all of these things to be happy but I had all of those things and that didn’t bring me anything.
I’d think if I’ve finished the game why aren’t I in ‘boss mode’, or whatever it is? I don’t understand. So yeah, that was me. I had so many problems but I always managed to pull myself out to just keep on going. Like there was one where after a game I had a head knock and I ended up having a seizure on the bus back from Toolong – after the Lions series – and pretty much around the time when I was getting kicked out of Australia cause they didn’t want me anymore. They said I could leave and do what I wanted to do.
Another time where I just pulled myself up and kept on going was after not getting paid by Toulon, which was a big one. They just stopped paying me. I still haven’t seen that money and am still working it out in court. I don’t know how a team can function like that because it’s happened to a few other guys too.
How do you get these messages to people coming through the system like you did?
I cant speak on behalf of women because I’ve never experienced it but I know from a male perspective, you do have to make your own mistakes. What I’m saying is I think the problem with the guys, not a problem, but everything in the system is from a book.
That’s why Saviour World is incredible because they literally deal with you from your true essence. I learnt that they don’t separate your heart and your mind – two different entities – so your mind governs your brain and helps you make decisions, logical decisions where as your heart is intuition, your guiding force.
It basically tries to see what you actually want in this world. Not what you think you want in this world. Not what you think is going to make you happy or put you ahead. For example, if I get this, then I’ll be good, if I make that team then I’ll be good.
They break it down so simply, it’s working with your energy. It’s finding your purpose and why. If you have a purpose, then you’ll be good because you will put all of your energy into creating a life you want.
Whereas if you’re just drifting and thinking ‘oh I just need this or that this week’ or ‘maybe if I attach myself to this’, or ‘if I’m friends with this bloke then it’ll be good’, or ‘if I make an extra 100 grande’. If you’re going through life, stabbing in the dark, that’s where you struggle, but if you literally have a why, everything becomes clearer.
For me, one of the first questions I was asked was why do you play rugby? Cause I like it. And my Saviour World coach was like no you don’t, you don’t like rugby anymore, you despise it. and I was like really? And he goes if you could right now you would go to an island and live off your money. And I was like yeah true, I would. And so I said yeah I do hate it. And he goes so why do you play? And I said for the money I guess. And he said it’s not even the money. He said you’re in fear of what to do next. Rugby is the only thing keeping you sane. And I was like that’s the truth.
So eventually when we got back to my why, my purpose now is using this platform to enlighten people. My journey has been my biggest blessing. I don’t want to go through those low points in my life again where I was like shit, I don’t want to get out of bed. No one knows these kinds of things. They only see what everyone puts on Instagram. I know that there’s a big movement about caring, and mental health now but I’ve learnt it’s a great thing. Because your body doesn’t want to play the game you’ve made up. It wants substance. It wants to live a true life.
So when I found my purpose and why, I wake up every morning and look forward to it now. I’m creating this life. Then if a problem comes to me, I can work through it. Ok, how do I solve this. And then you do it again and then you let it go. And when you’re working towards your purpose you don’t want to go out and destroy yourself or make bad decisions. Because you want to be in control. You want to be in control of your life and moving forward everyday. It becomes fun, it becomes like a game where you start pushing buttons you never could before and you start manifesting your life and you’re like shit this stuff is real.
How would your family and friends describe you and how do you want to be remembered?
When I was younger, I was very driven and focused. There was a six to seven year period where I lost my way. So I guess for them, this is my real version. This is my truth. I’m not playing a game anymore. This is what I’m all about. And I’ve always been about it but I just forgot it.
We forget what we’re here to do. We forget about our reality and why we are experiencing life. So for me, I want to be remembered – well I hope I still have a couple more years in me, cause I’m starting to really enjoy my rugby again.
That attitude where I would go on the field and think I couldn’t be touched, I lost that for a long time. I could still do all the magical stuff at training but then I would come into a game and have a block because I wasn’t playing from that creative side of me anymore.
Scientists say that the brain has a left and right lobe and I started playing from that left lobe, the logical side where I was breaking down decisions and thinking before I was moving. Whereas when I play my best, when anyone does they call it the flow state, when you’re on the right side of the brain, you’re moving and watching your body do things. Not thinking.
You move in patterns at training, the long pass, the cut out ball, the step and so when you go on the field you just trust, I didn’t trust anymore so I was trying to make things happen and forcing my hand, falling off tackles and overthinking.
I’m at that place again where when I’m on the field I’m going out to have genuine fun. And enjoy my footy. Because when you’re having fun, I play well and then it all goes from there.
For rugby, there are some sick things I want to do on the field, I want to play for Australia, and I want us to get back the Bledisloe for one. But if I’m around for another World Cup, I’d love to do that. And also to bring the younger guys through.
There’s such huge talent from our juniors coming through especially at the Reds, they’ve held on to all their talent in Queensland and we’re building a great provincial side. I’m having so much fun just helping these guys grow and seeing how much they’re moving, how fast they’re picking things up, not just on the field.
When I first came on, I noticed some of them couldn’t hold their consciousness for very long but now everyone is so much more engaged and growing as humans as well which is awesome to see because I know when I was that age, that’s when I started getting stuck.
For them, they’re moving and starting to create things and even away from training they’re connecting and not in a way little boys would connect, like going to the movies or let’s go do this, they’re actually having deeper conversations. Meaningful conversations.
What do you enjoy doing outside of rugby?
Just the little things now. We’ve just got a new pup so taking him out for a walk to the park and the beach and just hanging out with him. Getting into nature like hiking now. Whereas a year and a half ago it would’ve been the last thing I would’ve wanted to do.
I guess because I’m fulfilling my purpose, I focus all my energy on that. If you think about it like a bowl of water, 100ml of energy, literally everyday I’m using 95-100% of it so when I get home, I just like unwinding, whether it’s reading or chucking on some Netflix and watching a TV series. I do enjoy a bit of cooking too here and there. But I guess for me, it’s the craft.
Putting all my energy into rugby and this platform it’s given me. We get to do a lot of work now away from the footy field, and it’s picked up a little more now that the virus has come through.
Because we can’t actually train I’m helping guys with their kicking, with their skills through video. They’ll send me stuff and I’ll analyse it. I’ll suggest tweaking things. It’s good for me because it helps me engage and keeps my mind ticking over with goal kicking, and how to kick out of hand.
It’s helping guys who don’t have access to someone like me or be able to go and see a coach one on one or they might not have the funds to be able to do that so I’m just picking guys who are open – I can’t work with anyone who is just going to take, you know – people who are open, genuine and just want to learn, and are grateful for the time and energy you’ve given so they’re the kind of people I want to help. And then hopefully I might be able to help them get their game to the next level, or even if it’s just a chat.
If you could invite 3 people to dinner (here or no longer here with us), who would it be and why?
I would love to have the Buddha, sounds crazy but I would just like to have a chat with him. Funny one would be an Australian comedian, who is pretty raw, Alex Williamson, because he’s hilarious. And Malcolm X.
Future plans and aspirations?
Away from rugby, my main goal now is to empower these guys coming through. Help give them the tools and the knowledge to be able to jump the step that I hit which was tough for me. And I’m not saying that’s for everyone, everyone still needs to feel their own pain and go through their awakenings to find out what they truly want and their purpose in life. I just want to see these guys growing and living their best life. I genuinely want to see that because I’m algud now, I’m moving forward. If I keep to my movement patterns, keep to my little things and stay engaged then I’m creating the life I want.
How do you get that across to players who may not want to listen?
That’s the thing too, if they don’t want to help themselves, then they will have a journey like mine. That’s the simple thing. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. And I found that out because people tried to help me and I didn’t want it. So that’s just like, I’m kinda in an interesting space because there isn’t really men men out there, don’t get me wrong, there are guys who are close but like when I was growing up I don’t think there was really many role models who I respected, they weren’t on a level where I thought I really needed to listen to this guy.
There were a couple around the place at work but I think the good thing with the next generation is that they’re pretty open. They’re pretty aware. A lot more emotionally grounded. I even see it with things like team bondings, even the way that they’re drinking is very different to when I came through.
Photo credit: James O’Connor’s Instagram and Saviour World website.