James O’Connor has opened up on his drink and drugs ordeal, revealing that his terrified team-mates thought he had lost his life after years of self-abuse led to a seizure.
O’Connor has endured a rollercoaster journey throughout his rugby union career. Regarded as the Wallabies golden boy after making his debut at 18, he was exiled from the squad after a drunken incident at Perth Airport in 2013 and spent two nights in a Parisian jail cell in 2017 – an ordeal he pinpoints as ‘rock-bottom’.
After seeking professional help, the 31-year-old has turned a corner and made a sensational comeback to the national team in 2019 and represented his country in the last World Cup.
James O’Connor has shared the struggles he faced with drugs and alcohol
James O’Connor has opened up on the moment team-mates thought he had died
Speaking on the Offload podcast, O’Connor says his body was ‘broken’ after years of drink and drugs as he described his physical and mental state prior to his stint with men’s help organisation ‘Saviour World’ – who have also worked with Danny Cipriani and Kyle Sinkler.
‘It was life changing for me,’ he said. ‘I was in a dark place, I was taking everything from prescription meds to drugs to alcohol, and trying to get on something every day when I was in France.
‘When I met him I was like ‘f*** I need to sort my life out, can you help me?’ That’s how we got in touch and it was definitely a journey. I credit the work I did with him to getting back to Australia and definitely kickstarting where I am now.
The rugby star has turned a corner and made a sensational comeback to the national team in 2019 and represented his country in the last World Cup
It was during his stint with Toulon that the Australian suffered a seizure on the team bus
‘I was just weak because my body was just broken. I wasn’t training, I wasn’t eating right, wasn’t sleeping right, mentally I wasn’t in a good place at all. I don’t know how I was playing professional footy.’
O’Connor suffered a seizure on a bus trip home while playing for Toulon and said that the toll of drink and prescription drugs, as well as a head knock suffered during the game, was the cause of the ordeal.
A second seizure further down the line was the wake-up call he needed to get his life back on track, although team-mate Dylan Armitage feared the worst after the first incident.
‘I was in a pretty dark place, I was doing everything. I was just playing around, burning the candle at both ends,’ he said.
‘I was still playing rugby but I was out often and a lot, wasn’t sleeping much because we were on road trips and flying here, flying to this country, going down here and I had a little head knock after we played a game and on the team bus we just had a… it was a good win away so we just got into it and I ended up having a seizure on the bus and it was hectic.
O’Connor said he was ‘burning the candle on both ends’ before turning his life around
‘I can’t remember so it wasn’t that hectic for me but it was pretty hectic after. I think people were traumatised, I remember Dylan Armitage saying ‘I thought you died’ it was f***ed so yeah it was pretty hectic and that was the first wake up call when I was like ‘OK I need to rein it in a bit’ it was just a bit at that stage and then it happened one more time and I was like ‘OK, f***, alright’.
‘It happened again, yeah. It wasn’t a head knock this time, they did the full examinations and everything, tested me for epilepsy, but literally I was just burnt out.
‘The first one I think was a mixture of everything – drinking a lot, taking a lot and the head knock and the second time I was just so fatigued, burning the candle at both ends and it just happened.’
O’Connor made headlines in 2017 when he ended up in a Parisian jail cell with team-mate Ali Williams – who was allegedly caught buying cocaine on a night out.
‘It was rough, it was f***ing terrifying because no one spoke English in there and my French was decent, his [Williams’s] was very poor at that stage and it was just raw. First night, someone s**t on their hands and rubbed it all over the wall, yeah ruthless. That was another rock-bottom experience.’
After rediscovering top form with Sale, O’Connor returned to Australia and signed a two-year deal with Queensland Reds and Rugby Australia. The deal included strict behaviour clauses.
O’Connor suffered a seizure on a bus trip home while playing for Toulon and said that the toll of drink and prescription drugs, as well as a head knock suffered during the game, was the cause of the ordeal