The thing that 'p****d' James O'Connor off at Toulon
Wallabies playmaker James O’Connor has been reflecting on his time at Toulon and admits to certain selection frustrations while at the star-studded French side.
O’Connor lined out in the red and black of Toulon during two stints between 2014 and 2017 and learned a huge amount from the heavyweight talent employed by the club while he was there.
The Australian would play alongside the likes of fellow Wallabies Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, Springbok flyer Bryan Habana, Fijian wrecking ball Josua Tuisova, French legend Matthieu Bastareaud and All Blacks great Ma’a Nonu – among others.
O’Connor – who suffered two seizures at the club when his off-field antics caught up with him – admits to also learning a lot from wiser heads while in the south of France. The Queensland Red admits that – initially at least – his fellow Aussies were maybe a tad wary of the tearaway maverick and his behaviour on nights out.
“They had fun when they went out. I was reckless,” O’Connor told the Rugby Offload podcast. “At that stage in my career they were probably trying to avoid me. I’d have been bringing them down.
“Especially those two in particular. Drew and Gits were huge for me. They were men. I was still in that boy mindset.
“I hung out with them more and they started showing me what was what. That was the first time I saw the actual balance. These are good men, they’ve got family and they’re playing and they’ve got peace in their lives.
“I’m still connected with those guys as well.”
However, for all the off-field help, O’Connor admits his struggle to get selected for the biggest games as a starter still rankles a little.
“The thing that pissed me off at Toulon was that I could never nail down a starting spot.
“It was some of the best footy I played in my life, playing for them [Toulon].
“Leigh Halfpenny was playing fullback, where I played as well. [Bryan] Habana was on one wing and Josua was on the other wing and in the centres they had Ma’a and Basta [Bastareaud]. So it was like ‘Where do I go?’
“So I was just moving. I played like 10 to 15 in that backline. Some games I would play 10, then next I would play wing, then 12, then fullback, then 13. So I was just playing all over. But having a lot of fun with it.
“They were great minds of the game and once again I learned a lot. I was in a better place where I could start learning a bit more about rugby.
“Instead of playing off instincts and they trying to step people, I learned how to manipulate the back field. When to play this, how to play this, why are you doing these things… I was just asking a lot of questions to these guys. They had all their viewpoints and answers and I just kind of blended them into how I played, which was pretty cool.”
His Toulon teammates left an on-field impression on O’Connor when he was there, listing many of his teammates as some of the best he’s played with.
“Specimen-wise, someone who make something out of nothing? Josua Tuisova. Back in 2017 he just couldn’t be touched.
“As complete players of the game I would say Matt Giteau and Ma’a Nonu for sure. I think Ma’a just had everything. He could do everything. There wasn’t one thing he could do and he could just turn it on when he needed in the big moments.
“Gitts, his understanding of the game and his foot speed. He’s just a fighter as well, for a little fella, **** he goes hard. You could always rely on him. You just knew he’d always do the job.”
Current Reds teammate Taniela Tupou is another player who has bowled over Australia – the 135kg prop able to break games almost at will. “The best thing about Nala is that if there’s a moment in a game, I’ll just look at him and say: ‘Bro, I ****ing need something from you here and he’ll just do something for me. Whether it’s a scrum penalty or he’ll make a break and he’ll run 50 or put a hit on and get us the ball back. He’s just that sort of player.”
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