Now a key man for Dave Rennie’s Wallabies, James O’Connor looked back on the drug and mental health problems he has endured during his career.
The 30-year old started at fly-half for three of Australia’s six international tests last year, and likely would have started all of their games if not for injuries to his knee and foot.
It wasn’t that long ago since O’Connor’s international career looked to be over, after off-field behavioural issues and a loss of form saw the Wallaby leave his home country for Europe.
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“I left Australia to go play overseas. It wasn’t just for rugby. It was just for me to get away. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I lost my whole identity; my whole identity was just rugby,” O’Connor told UK base health and well being organisation Saviour World.
‘It was a cry for help’
However, O’Connor’s problems followed him to Europe, as he found himself arrested for cocaine use in Paris in 2017 while playing for Toulon.
“Looking back on it, it was a cry for help for sure and because people started saying I was like this, I was like, ‘alright if that is how you want me to be then I will be this in an extreme version’.
“I pretended I didn’t care about anything, I lost interest, I was rebelling against it and made some terrible decisions. Nights out, I started drinking a lot more, doing stuff like that — I just started spiralling.
“It wasn’t just going out on the weekend to have fun, it was like going out go get numb. And then it would come into the week as well, and then my only escape from that lifestyle, the only thing keeping me sane, was rugby,” O’Connor explained.
The versatile back was something of a child prodigy, making his professional debut for the Western Force at the age of 17, before making his international debut for Australia at the age of 18.
Despite his obvious proficiency in rugby, he found himself disliking the sport as he struggled to get to grips with playing in France.
“I couldn’t even play rugby the way I wanted to because I started getting injured. I couldn’t express myself, I couldn’t communicate well enough to be able to talk to some of the players in the team and the coaches to be able to get my side across. Even rugby became negative for me.
“All I wanted to do was sleep. If I wasn’t at training I would be sleeping or at home watching TV — I was just so tired all the time, just so tired,” O’Connor explained.
‘I thought I had to take these pain killers’
The former Toulon player revealed that his struggles with injuries led him to develop a dependency on prescription drugs.
“I think you start tricking yourself. At first you are taking it for your body and then it is like your mind is so strong, and then after a while you become reliant on this.
“For me to get through the week of rugby, because I was injured, I thought I had to take these pain killers, anti-inflammatories.
“You are not sleeping well so you start taking a sleeping tablet and by the end of it you are taking a cocktail of everything and you’re never like in your normal present state — you are always dulled, you are always in a deficit,” O’Connor said.
The Wallaby now plays for the Queensland Reds and was vital in leading them to the Super Rugby AU final, which they narrowly lost to the Brumbies.
While 2020 majorly disrupted the rugby season, O’Connor grabbed all opportunities that came to him with both hands and is on track to be a crucial player for the Wallabies at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.