RUGBY’S REBEL WITH A CAUSE
James O’Connor is a supremely gifted rugby union talent who has played in almost every position in the Wallabies backline since being handed a national call-up before his 18th birthday. Now he’s trying to build the game’s identity as a marquee man in Australian Rules heartland.
You’ve really ingrained yourself into Melbourne life haven’t you? You’ve got yourself a couple of pretty high profile AFL mates.
Yeah mate I love it. I’ve got a good group of guys I hang around with. We’ve all got similar morals. We each want to be the best in our respective footy codes and really want to start winning. The connections have come together that way. We’re all pretty similar and very good friends now.
From a rugby point of view it must be tough in a way though. You didn’t win many games at the Western Force and now you’ve moved to the Melbourne Rebels who have also struggled?
Yeah but the reason I left the Force was because I wanted to play in a team that was young with rugby. I wanted to take a challenge on and be a part of the environment and part of something new. Something with real structure that in generations on people look back and can say ‘you were part of building that.’ They talk a lot about the Sydney Swans and their ‘Bloods’ culture. I guess that’s the sort of legacy we want to leave here at the Rebels.
Can rugby penetrate the Melbourne sporting market?
I think any sport can crack Melbourne. If you’re winning, you’re a chance. Obviously we haven’t got as many wins as we would have liked but I think we’ve been playing some good footy. But we’ve also played some average footy as well. Melbourne people have shown they love sport. We’ve seen them get behind the Melbourne Storm. They’ve got a big following now. But they’ve won premierships and keep winning. So as a rugby union player and someone who wants to be doing his best for this team and be playing in a winning team, if we can win a few more games and get really consistent, Melbourne will get behind us. I’d like to think we play a pretty positive brand of rugby so if we keep playing like that it’s going to bring in crowds.
Has the emphasis placed on you in steering the team at the Rebels been good for your rugby?
That’s sort of why I came here. When I left the Force I was still pretty young and I saw a niche to be a young leader here. I thought it would be a good place for me to learn. Stirling Mortlock was here. And even Gareth Delve. I’ve learnt a lot from these guys and hopefully when they move on I’m ready to step up. And coming here was a challenge. I like the competition. I never like to be too comfortable with my football because I feel like when that happens you’re not learning. You either win or you learn and I’ve done a lot of learning this year that’s for sure. So I think coming here has been good for me as a leader and in a ball-playing role. I think it’s been good for me not just as a person but for the team as well. We want to keep our structures together and those core players. So in years to come I think it’s really going to be good for me.
There’s plenty of talk you may be leaving the Rebels. When will your contract be resolved?
I’m not too sure. Something’s going to be announced soon I’d say. There’s a few things being sorted out at the moment. But there’s no rush. I think we’ve really turned the corner here at the Rebels. I need a little bit more time to think about it but in saying that I haven’t really thought about going anywhere else. There hasn’t been too much communication because I’m pretty happy with where I am. It’s more just about sorting the finer details out.
The Rebels have been dealing with the suspension of Kurtley Beale and Cooper Vuna for a bar fight in South Africa. What has been the toll on the club?
To be honest the boys have stuck together really tight. When you lose Kurtley, I mean he’s one the best players on the team, it’s always going to be tough because he’s a great on-field leader and great with the ball in his hands. They’re two of the best players going around in Australian rugby so it was tough but the boys have stuck together through it. Cooper has slotted straight back into the team and Kurtley is on leave in Sydney.
Have you been in touch?
Yeah I’ve had a few chats with Kurtley. He’s training really hard and sorting things out. He can’t wait to get back to playing. But in saying that the Rebels squad is a good outfit and we are really tight. We’re lucky enough we do have good depth to cover them. So there are guys who can step up and fill in and they’ve done that really well.
Yourself, Kurtley and Quade Cooper are all very flamboyant characters …
What do you mean? What do you mean by flamboyant?
Well you’re guys with a bit of spark. You’ve got a life outside of footy that everyone wants to know about. I just wondered if you thought they were necessary character traits to be a flyhalf?
Outside of footy everyone is different. When you’re playing rugby everyone is similar and thinking the same but off the field everyone enjoys themselves in their own way. It just seems like an easy story when it comes to us. We’re not just colourful people. There’s been a few little mishaps. Quade obviously last year came out with a comment and he’s worked on that. But bringing me into these sorts of discussions I find a little bit unfair. I missed the world cup squad announcement a few years ago but since then, well as you can see I’ve been put into the Wallabies leadership group, I’ve captained the Rebels side. I’m doing all the right things on and off the field so it’s more frustrating for me when I do that sort of stuff so that’s why I try to steer clear of it.
I don’t think that’s in dispute. It was more a case of wondering if you needed to have that flamboyant type of character trait to be a creative playmaker when you wear the number 10 jersey?
Ah okay. Well I guess you could draw something from that. But if you look at previous players like Stephen Larkham. He’s not an out there, flamboyant sort of guy and he was one of the best fly-halfs Australia has ever had. Then you look at David Campese. He was quite flamboyant and out-spoken and he was one of the best players Australia’s ever had. With me what you see is what you get. I like having fun. I like my mates. I love my family. And I feel like right now I’m ticking all the boxes. I’m preparing like I never have before. And I’m playing as good a rugby as I ever have. And I only want to to play better.
You talked about leadership at the Rebels and the Wallabies. Is that something you’re aspiring to do more with the national team?
Yeah definitely. But not necessarily by saying ‘pick me as a leader.’ I think just the way I play on the field and just earning the respect of the boys on the field is leadership. If I can control the team around the field in the type of positions I play, whether that’s at 10 or 15, you’re a key ball-player, you’re talking all the time, so you’re kind of showing leadership automatically. It’s kind of defined a little bit by the position you play I guess and by the characteristics of who I am.
You mentioned 10 and 15. We’ve also seen you at 12 and on the wing. What do you think is your best position?
Ah that’s a tough one. I like 10. I prefer 10. It’s a position that controls things on the field. I feel like I can pass, pass, pass, I can have a run, I can have a kick. It allows me to showcase my full skillset. When I’m playing on the wing I’ll always be that utility type who sniffs around the rucks. And when I play 15 I guess I’m more following the ball. So it’s more organising the backline. But at the end of the day I just want to play. I know you guys want a straight answer but I could play 12 as well. I played 12 growing up. But right now after the injury I had last year I just want to get out on the field and play. It’s all about being in the starting 15 for the Rebels and hopefully for the Wallabies.
I guess it’s a good thing being so versatile in that regard but at times I suppose it can be a little bit frustrating because you’re filling so many different roles?
Yeah. My gift is my curse right? I would really like to just cement a position and I’ve had some really good chats with Robbie Deans about where he sees me playing and also with Damien (Hill) about where he sees me playing for the Rebels. They’re pretty similar. It’s just a matter of locking one of them down. For a lot of the senior guys once they got to my age they said ‘right this is what I’m going to be playing.’ Stephen Larkham did that. Even Dan Carter.
You’ve been in that Wallabies system for so long now. But you’re only 22. They earmarked you pretty early didn’t they?
Yeah well I think 7’s got me straight through to Super Rugby. Then I was lucky. I played three or four games and I was playing outside Matt Giteau. He put me through a few holes. Then they took me away on that spring tour and ever since then I haven’t wanted to take a step back. I probably thought I was a Wallaby before I really was because I went on that spring tour. But I think that was a positive thing even though I don’t think I had really earned anything. That made me work even more in that second and third year to try and cement a spot. I started training harder. I was the first one on the field. The last one to leave. I worked a lot on my goal-kicking. I worked a lot in the gym. I wanted to get my strength up.
Were you ever told you were too small for competitive rugby?
Oh in my younger days, yes. But you get opinions all the time. It’s the guys that you respect the most are the ones whose opinions stick. There’s a lot of talk out there but I try not to listen to it too much. I’ve got a quiet circle. I’m close to my family. I’m close to my friends. And I’ve got some guys out there too who I really value their opinion. So if it comes from them then yeah I take it on board. But if it comes from someone else, no. I listen to it but at the end of the day it’s guys you really respect and trust that you’re going to make changes for.
I guess your family can’t lose when it comes to the tri-nations. You were born in Australia. Your parents are from New Zealand. Your grandparents are South African. Are they all converted Wallabies fans now?
Yeah all except my grandad who is from New Zealand. He came over to Australia for his 90th birthday and I spent a bit of time with him. And he said ‘listen mate, I love you and I really hope you go well in every game.’ Then he said he’ll be going for the Wallabies in every game we play, except against the All Blacks. He said ‘I really hope you play well but I can’t bring myself to cheer for the Wallabies against the All Blacks.’ Haha.
No dramas this season then. You’re playing against the Lions. That tour is huge isn’t it?
Yeah it’s just about the pinnacle of rugby I think. They’re picking from four nations and they’re going to be putting superstars into every position. But I am really confident if we can put a squad on the training paddock, start training early and get some cohesion that we can take these boys on and we can get a win.
Yeah massively. That’s why I got on twitter. The whole point I think is to show fans out there what you’re really like. But in saying that I can take photos on my twitter when I’m out with my mates, all very harmless stuff and then suddenly it turns into a news article. But what I get from my fans is massive. I get loads of feedback and lots of laughs. There’s always going to be people out there knocking you but I find that pretty funny to be honest. But there’s so much support out there from different people I think it’s cool. I’ve had guys from all over the world asking me about golfing tips. About getting rid of nerves. Anything from rugby to life. It’s pretty amazing and it’s all just a tool for me to interact with other people that I don’t get a chance to play with.
Must be hard to keep up with nearly 200-thousand followers?
Yeah I try and post something every day and put a question out there so I can see what’s trending at the time and what’s on people’s minds.
Maybe this interview will help you out a little then! Thanks James.