QLD_CM_SPORT_RUGBY_REDS OCONNOR_28JAN20
QLD_CM_SPORT_RUGBY_REDS OCONNOR_28JAN20

Red redemption: How JOC came back from the dead

James O'Connor was walking along the beach at Surfers Paradise at 2am last November with the alcohol, pitfalls and craziness of Schoolies Week all around him.

The boy Wallaby who too often lost his way in such mazes is now the guy with a wise compass not a spinning dial.

O'Connor wasn't there to party. He was there to walk drunken souls home, settle tearful schoolgirls split from their friends and chat to teens about life after school as a Red Frogs helper.

It wasn't a stage-managed cameo for his image.

Less than a month removed from the World Cup spotlight in Japan, he was volunteering beside friend Andy Gourley.

 

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James O’Connor at the World Cup. Picture: Dan Mullan/Getty
James O’Connor at the World Cup. Picture: Dan Mullan/Getty

 

The "Boss Frog" had helped O'Connor through his own bad night on the drink as a youngster.

It's all part of a hard-won maturity which has changed the life and rugby outlook of O'Connor from the dark depths of just three years ago.

His second coming as a Wallaby last year at 29 was a remarkable rebirth few saw coming but he can prove even more valuable as the prized recruit for the Queensland Reds.

His partnership with boom colt Jordan Petaia in the centres can develop into one of the most potent in Super Rugby starting with Friday night's opener against the Brumbies in Canberra.

The fresh energy to O'Connor, the footballer, is all wrapped up in O'Connor, the man, growing up and finding purpose.

"Everyone has got inside them a light and dark wolf," said O'Connor, with a nod to Native American folklore.

"There's goodness and the another side, not badness but ego, insecurity, wrongly believing you need a certain image and stuff like that.

 

James O’Connor rose from the a “dark place”. Picture: Steve Pohlner
James O’Connor rose from the a “dark place”. Picture: Steve Pohlner

 

"Whichever wolf you feed will be the dominant driver of your life.

"For me, I got to a point in my life where I wasn't enjoying my rugby, I was lost and my body was broken.

"I can now ask 'why was I drinking?' and it was to feel numb, to feel nothing."

O'Connor was talking about his troubled 2016-17 at French club Toulon when he was dealing with injury, concussion lay-offs, a seizure when his blood sugar level plunged and being busted for cocaine possession in Paris.

"Dark times? There were many because I lost connection with my purpose and there were some days I didn't get out of bed until 2pm," O'Connor said.

O'Connor is only able to be this honest because of how comfortable he now is with the life he has rebuilt with long-time partner Bridget Bauman.

"I've healed with my new state of awareness because I know better now where once I wasn't doing the right things at times," he said.

 

 

 

"It doesn't just happen overnight but when you give back it fills you with energy."

Weeks before he was due to return, O'Connor appeared at Reds' pre-season training to connect with his new teammates and he's been a positive team voice ever since.

He shifts smoothly into first receiver to take workload off young flyhalf Isaac Lucas.

A short pass to Petaia, a cutout ball or a stepping run of his own can open up attacking variety for a Reds team with exciting potential.

He's fit, he's upbeat, he's added a helpful kilogram to his World Cup weight and he's playing as if every game is a privilege that was very nearly wrenched from him.

At Schoolies Week, the Gold Coast product saw himself in some of those young, out-of-control faces.

"For sure, I saw my younger self," O'Connor said.

"Everyone knows they are drinking with their first taste of freedom.

"There's excitement but also so many dangers with week-long alcohol consumption and moments when a sort of depression can take over when some don't know what their life plan is or they haven't got into their preferred uni course.

"As a Red Frogs volunteer, just walking a young girl home when she's by herself can save so much drama because there are happy and sad tears that week."

O'Connor was a Wallaby at the same age as some schoolies and without the life skills to handle instant fame.

You know O'Connor has changed by simply looking at his normal haircut.

He's not platinum blond as when craving attention at Toulon, there are no streaks and the topknot thing he tried is long gone.

"I don't need to be flash anymore, that's just ego really," O'Connor said.

"Some of the photos I put up on Instagram I cringe at now.

"The goal is to keep growing."

The best James O'Connor may still be to come.

 

BRUMBIES V REDS

Canberra Stadium, 6.15pm Friday (Qld time)

Referee: AJ Jacobs (S Af)

TV (live): Fox Sports, Kayo

BRUMBIES: Tom Banks, Solomone Kata, Tevita Kuridrani, Irae Simone, Tom Wright, Noah Lolesio, Joe Powell, Pete Samu, Tom Cusack, Rob Valetini, Murray Douglas, Darcy Swain, Allan Alaalatoa (c), Folau Fainga'a, Scott Sio. Reserves: Connal McInerney, Harry Lloyd, James Slipper, Caderyn Neville, Will Miller, Ryan Lonergan, Bayley Kuenzle, Andy Muirhead

REDS: Bryce Hegarty, Henry Speight, Jordan Petaia, James O'Connor, Jock Campbell, Isaac Lucas, Tate McDermott, Harry Wilson, Liam Wright (c), Angus Scott-Young, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Angus Blyth, Taniela Tupou, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, JP Smith. Reserves: Alex Mafi, Dane Zander, Feao Fotuaika, Izack Rodda, Seru Uru, Moses Sorovi, Hamish Stewart, Hunter Paisami