The rise and fall (and fall) of James O’Connor – Australian rugby’s “Justin Bieber”

Conor Sheridan

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If a camera crew show up to your high school prom, you’re probably a bit special. Such was the case for Australia’s James O’Connor, heralded as the next big thing when he burst onto the scene with the Western Force in 2008 as a fresh-faced 17 year-old. The hype around O’Connor was so intense that it was being debated which of the three Tri-Nations superpowers he would represent before he could even buy a beer. Fast forward to today and O’Connor’s international rugby ambitions and credibility lie in tatters following a string of controversies and bad decisions, most recently being arrested buying cocaine in Paris two weeks ago. This marks the nadir of O’Connor’s misadventures, but before the falls there was a remarkable ascension to superstardom.

Four matches for the Western Force was followed by a first call-up to the Wallabies in 2008. O’Connor came off the bench against the Italians and promptly ran in a hat-trick of tries, just weeks after his 18th birthday. His career was already following a similar path to that of Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll, who announced himself with a hat-trick in Paris in 2000, but O’Connor was on an even more accelerated trajectory. Before he had even turned 20, O’Connor had penned sponsorship deals with Puma, Swisse and OneWater, on top of a $1.2 million contract with the Australian Rugby Union.

Things were going just as well on the field. O’Connor established himself for the Western Force in Super Rugby and also began to start regularly at full-back for the national side. In a heated encounter in the 2010 Tri-Nations, at the age of just 20, he converted his own try last minute try under immense pressure to end a run of 11 losses against the New Zealand All Blacks.

This was followed by inclusion in the Wallabies World Cup squad in 2011, where O’Connor featured prominently and emerged with credit from a campaign that saw Australia eliminated in the semi-finals.

O’Connor with his bronze medal at the 2011 World Cup. Photo Credit: Flickr/Enzer’s World

There had been some red flags about O’Connor over the years, but as with any elite athlete, they can be forgiven almost anything if they are performing at a high standard. For this reason, a food fight in 2009 in the team hotel was overlooked. A scuffle with teammates Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale following a victory over the French in Paris  in 2010 was also swept under the rug. O’Connor even failed to attend the announcement of the Australian World Cup squad in 2011. Following the World Cup, O’Connor would move from the Western Force to the newly-formed Melbourne Rebels to team up with fellow perceived trouble-maker, Kurtley Beale. It would prove to be an unhappy union.

The majority of his first season would be curtailed by injury, while his second would be blighted by off-field indiscretions. In the space of four weeks, O’Connor was pictured going for fast food at 4am, three days before an international Test match with the British and Irish Lions. He would then miss the team meeting following the Wallabies eventual defeat to the Lions and then, with Beale, he missed the team bus to training and was forced to follow in a taxi. His release from the Rebels was not long in coming. Sadly, the bottom of the barrel had not yet been reached and in September 2013, O’Connor was not allowed on a flight to Bali and removed from Perth Airport for being “too intoxicated” to board his flight. At the age of just 23, O’Connor had appeared to hit rock bottom. This was the straw the broke the ARU’s back, and the once golden boy of Australian rugby was released from his contract.

O’Connor kicking for the Rebels in 2012. Photo Credit: Flickr/loucyy

What followed was a mature and admirable choice from O’Connor compared to what had preceded it, as he signed a 6 month contract with London Irish up to the end of the 2014 season. While his form on the pitch didn’t attract many headlines, neither did his actions off it and it seemed that he was on the path to redemption. A brief spell with Toulon in France was followed by a return Down Under, this time with the Queensland Reds in an attempt to make his way into Australia’s World Cup squad for 2015.

This did not come to fruition however, and he was released by the Reds in October 2015, with the Red’s Chief Executive Jamie Carmichael saying O’Connor had wished to be released on personal grounds. This drew criticism from some quarters, with O’Connor’s detractors saying he was simply leaving Australia with his tail between his legs having failed to make the World Cup squad.

“He’s an immature little t***. Anyone can mature, that showed me, apart from the Justin Bieber of Australian rugby, James O’Connor. He’s still only 25. This could be the greatest waste of Australian rugby talent. He’s played 44 Tests for Australia at the age of 25, hasn’t played in the last few years because of his bad attitude, a guy that just hasn’t matured and now they’re going ‘personal issues’.” This was the opinion of Greg Martin, himself a former Wallaby turned breakfast show host.

O’Connor warming up for Toulon. Photo Credit: Flickr/Florian Escoffier

O’Connor returned to Toulon and, for the second time, seemed to be on the way back following a year with no issues in the south of France. This all fell to pieces on February 27th 2017, when O’Connor arrested buying cocaine in Paris with former All Black Ali Williams. Now his reputation has been irreparably tainted in both hemispheres.

O’Connor has been stood down by Toulon and has been informed that his contract will not be renewed. It is currently rumoured that he will sign with Worcester Warriors in England, the only stop on his nomadic career where he did not land himself in any kind of trouble. Can a man with such mercurial talents, who accumulated 44 caps by the age of 22 come back from this latest setback? Only O’Connor himself could answer that question, but at the tender age now of just 26 and with two and a half years until the next World Cup in Japan, there is still plenty of time for another peak in O’Connor’s currently trough-laden career.

In the words of current Wallabies coach Michael Cheika following this latest scandal; “There is a good lad in there and I think we just have to leave the footy out of it for a minute and let the guy get the assistance he needs, to get back personally first of all, and then we’ll see about footy.”

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Conor Sheridan