'Not that same guy': Ex-teammate reveals the real James O'Connor

By Matt Giteau

To a lot of Australians, James O’Connor is still that young bloke who did an interview before he joined Melbourne and said, ‘I’m going to do what’s right for my brand.’

Everyone was like ‘what, who is this guy?’ The ‘Brand O’Connor’ line stuck for a long time.

I knew James early on in his career, played with him at Toulon, and we still talk a bit.

I’m pleased for him that he’s getting the chance back in Australian rugby. Returning to the Wallabies is something he desperately wants now. If you’ve got someone of his talent who’s desperate to play for his country, and do all the right things, it makes sense to bring him back in.

The ability he’s got to cover so many positions and to cover them at a world-class level, it would be silly not to at least consider him for that squad.

It would be a waste if he didn’t get another opportunity – for him and Australian rugby.

James O'Connor is in line for a sensational Wallabies return. Pic: Getty

You could tell he rated himself

I met James when he was a kid wanted by the Force. We got together for breakfast at Manly and he turned up in the worst kit. You could just tell this guy rated himself. And he had a point. As far schoolboys went he was killing it, and he walked accordingly.

He was wearing what looked like one of those rainbow Hypercolor shirts and stonewashed jeans. I remember him clearly from that day. He was not short on confidence.

He definitely rubbed some people up the wrong way, and got into some dramas, and for a lot of Australians that’s the last image of him.

Unless you know any more, how could you be expected to think differently?

It was the same at Toulon. A lot of the foreign players had an opinion of him and that quickly changed. A lot of the senior guys confided: ‘Gee, I thought he was going to be a bit more of a wanker.’

The way he was perceived was that he was going to be a bit more full of himself. But really he’s not.

Knowing him at Toulon and since then, I’ve found he’s matured a lot as a person and a player. He now understands how much he enjoyed playing for Australia, and how much he has missed not playing for his country having been given such an opportunity at such a young age.

In a way, I think he wasn’t helped by the circumstances at the Wallabies when he came in.

When he was first brought in, there were huge wraps on him and deservedly so – he was a very talented player. I don’t think he had to earn too much.

James O'Connor. Pic: Getty

There were a lot of younger blokes coming in at the same time. A lot of the standards we had at the time were changing. We had a new coach, Robbie Deans, and new players and it was the philosophy of the coach that he wanted everyone to be on a level keel. Which is exactly how it should be.

The way I was brought in under Eddie Jones was even if you were in a senior player’s position and he was behind you on the bench, as far as how he stood in that group he was always above you.

The way the culture was, and the coach didn’t even need to say it, the senior players set the example and they set good habits.

You obviously respect people who have gone before you and what they’ve done. But when the new coach came in and James first made that side, a lot of that was put aside.

He was wearing what looked like one of those rainbow Hypercolor shirts and stonewashed jeans. I remember him clearly from that day. He was not short on confidence.

If I had come in and been treated the same as George Gregan, and no one could tell me what to do, I would have made so many bad decisions.

This is not a slight on Robbie at all. There’s a perception we aren’t on great terms, but my thoughts on this have nothing to do with being left out of the World Cup squad under him. I want to make that clear.

But when he came in the rules and culture were that as a senior player I wasn’t meant to ride younger players. It was about making them feel welcome so they could bring what they had to the table.

That has some good elements to it but I think off the field we suffered a bit more with that attitude.

Former Wallaby Matt Giteau. Pic: Getty

I think it works best when young players come in and have to earn their way. He was almost thrown in quite early.

James would be the first to admit he was a bit opinionated for a younger player. But I noticed in Toulon his willingness to learn.

There was a strong core of senior players and James had the ability to learn good habits and work out the bad ones. That time there taught him a lot. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. If you have both, you can be unstoppable.

He understands the game more now. Early on he wanted to play 10, fullback, 12. Now he understands where he’s best suited within a team.

And he’s at a place now where he understands what he did wrong. The only way we can learn is from our mistakes and that’s how we get better. He’s developed a lot as a person – more team-oriented, more level as a guy.

I think James has come back knowing he’s taking a pay cut. He has done it before. In 2015, he came back and took a huge pay cut to make the World Cup when he played for Queensland.

James O'Connor in action for the Qld Reds. Pic: Getty

This time he’s at a different stage of his career. He’s a better player than he was in 2015.

Now I think he’s more focused. He went through a rough patch with injuries too. When something is taken away from you, you realise how much you miss it. When he wasn’t able to play at his level, that frustrated him. Now he’s back playing at a level he wants to be at, you can see he’s enjoying rugby and enjoying training hard and seeing the benefits.

He’s got a partner who has been with him since he was 16 and keeps him grounded and his parents have been really good for him.

If there is any reluctance in Australia to welcome him back, that would be from previous James. I think a lot still see him as that 23-year-old who worried about his ‘brand’. He’s not that same guy.