James O’Connor is no stranger to labels – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the inaccurate.
At 17, he was a prodigy. The youngest ever Super Rugby debutant in the history of the sport.
At 18, he was the future. The second youngest man to ever play for his country.
At 23, he was the bad boy whose off-field exploits resulted in a torn-up Wallabies contract.
At 27, he was an outcast. After being arrested in Paris on suspicion of buying cocaine, James O’Connors’ fall from grace appeared to be complete.
Australian rugby was finished with O’Connor, but he wasn’t finished with Australian rugby. Now he is back on home soil, back in the Wallabies team, and back in the headlines.
At 30, James O’Connor is reformed: a label that finally fits.
Those who follow the game of rugby will tell you he seems like a changed man. Calm on the field, driven off it. But who has he changed into exactly?
Bad Boy, New Man
Meeting at a cafe in the beachside suburb of Coogee, the first thing I notice about James O’Connor is just how regular he seems.
Gone is the peroxided blonde hair, so often a staple of wayward sports stars. Gone is the mischievous smirk that hinted at trouble. Gone is the version of O’Connor that remains frozen in the minds of football fans: cocky and impulsive.
Sitting amongst the all-day brunchers and early lunchers, he looks entirely at home. This is James O’Connor, new and improved.
“Being a professional rugby player from such a young age, I had to become a chameleon,” admits O’Connor when asked about the many faces of Australia’s most controversial flyhalf.
“I learned to play different characters. I was being wheeled out to CEOs and sponsors, told to shake hands with this guy, smile for this person. And I think that played a part in breaking me because I didn’t know who I was.”
The O’Connor rise and fall and rise again is a sporting cliche we’re all too familiar with.
Prodigious talent with the world at his feet self implodes through a series of high profile indiscretions. Typically, they’re left with two options: bottom out or bounce back.
In 2017, while playing for Toulon in France, O’Connor and former All Black Ali Williams were arrested for allegedly trying to buy cocaine outside a Parisian nightclub. For O’Connor who had grown up comfortably in Brisbane while attending an elite private school, spending three nights in a French jail cell was tres confronting.
“When everything happened in France I had already started to realise what was good for me and what wasn’t, but then I made this mistake,” recalls O’Connor.
“I let my guard down, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but honestly, I was far from innocent, and I needed help badly. I was drinking every day, experimenting with prescription drugs, it was rock bottom.”
For most people, the knee jerk reaction to hitting a low is to reach for the familiar – head home and reboot. But for O’Connor, the bridges back here weren’t just burned, they were charred to ash.
“I tried to come home to Australia, but no one wanted to touch me with a ten-foot pole, I had a stigma about me,” says O’Connor, who famously had his Wallabies contract torn up in 2013.
With his options limited. O’Connor signed a deal with English Premiership club Sale Sharks shortly before the 2017–18 season – that’s when everything changed.
“I started working seriously with a guy named Ollie Pryce-Tidd,” beams O’Connor, the name bringing a smile to his face.
“That’s when I discovered Saviour World.”
What Is Saviour World?
Footballers’ Instagram posts tends to fall into four distinct categories: Game-day shots. Training shots. Fancy snaps with the missus’ and beers with the boys.
So when James O’Connor changed lanes and started posting about a mysterious organization called Saviour World, I was intrigued. Since February 22nd, 2018 nearly every single post on O’Connor’s account has tagged or mentioned Saviour World.
Click through to the Saviour World page and you will find more questions than answers. It bills itself as a health and wellness website, promising knowledge for men and encouraging readers to join the male revolution. The account is populated with cartoons of buff, shirtless alpha males and accompanied by captions like YOU ARE A MAN, WHY ARE YOU ANGRY? and THE POWER OF INTENTION.
It’s confusing but it’s kind of meant to be, at least according to Ollie Pryce-Tidd, the public face of Saviour World and the man responsible for reforming O’Connor.
“There are quite a few men behind Saviour World, and you possibly sense there is some mystery to it,” says Ollie over the phone from the Scottish highlands.
“If you want to seek the answers, you will find them.”
The longer we talk, the more obvious it becomes that Ollie specialises in this type of chat. Eloquent flow that sounds impressive but leaves you unsure of what is being discussed. Eventually, he starts to drip-feed information about Savior World and what it means today.
“Originally we sold teas, and the plan was for Saviour World to be a successful health brand,” explains Ollie.
“But that was only to generate an income so we could serve our bigger purpose: delivering knowledge and sharing ancient teachings to help make you a better man.”
As far as I can tell, Saviour World is a self-help program aimed at young men, offering up books, videos and literature designed to empower. That’s all well and good, but talk of ancient teachings seems like an attempt to legitimise what is another stock standard self-help program.
What are these teachings, where did they come from?
“When I was a young man, I was chronically ill, and while looking for answers, I came across a man who became one of the Saviour World founders,” explains Ollie.
“He didn’t reveal himself to me in person, but he started to pass on the teachings. We now have various teachers that pass on their knowledge to the next generation.”
Ollie then proceeds to drop a few more esoteric bombs, including “the stairway to heaven is inside you”, and “great knowledge has to be passed on to those who are worthy”.
While it’s tempting to roll your eyes, Ollie speaks with such authenticity that it’s hard not to get swept up. Maybe the stairway to heaven is inside me?
Savior World users can pay £3.33 to access the teachings via a monthly subscription and O’Connor steadfastly maintains they have pulled him back from the abyss.
“I needed to find my purpose again, and Saviour World gave me that,” offers O’Connor, picking at his plate of calamari.
As well as the teachings Saviour World encourages physical sacrifices, like carrying boulders on the beach.
“Break your body to break your mind and prove that you can get through the pain,”
“Ollie would say, ‘You’re going to climb a mountain,’ and I’d say ‘But my ankle is sore!’
Next thing you know, I am climbing it while carrying a heavy backpack and wearing a shitty pair of shoes. He wanted to break the sooky kid in me.”
Harmless Self-Help or Risky Idealisation?
Self-help was all the rage in the noughties with Tony Robbins helping a confused generation “unleash the power within”. But it’s different these days, social media has turned every second person into a navel-gazing guru, triggering a rise in self-help cynicism.
“Right now it’s trendy to practise yoga, drink a juice, do a bit of Wim Hof and be the best version of yourself,” laughs O’Connor.
“But when you take a step above and fully commit to an enlightened life, it can become a bit weird for people.”
O’Connor admits his rebrand raised a few eyebrows in the Wallabies camp but for the most part his teammates have been respectful, curious even. “Though a few have taken the piss,” he smiles.
The more pressing issue for O’Connor is that anyone with a platform who endorses unorthodox views, especially on health and self, runs the risk of being publicly scrutinized. Just ask Pete Evans.
O’Connor speaks openly to his 160,000 followers about suffering from depression and believes Saviour World has helped him overcome that – without the use of prescription drugs.
“The worst thing I ever did was get medicated. I became a zombie. It took all heightened emotions away,” O’Connor tells me.
It’s no secret these types of opinions could land a successful young Wallaby back in hot water, something Ollie knows all too well.
“Who is to say who has the right answer, it comes down to what resonates with you when discussing mental health treatment options,” he says.
“Some people want the conventional approach to mental health, but Saviour World sees it as an awakening process. Your spirit has had enough of living a lie; you’re sick and tired of being distracted and drained by society.”
Then comes the disclaimer: “Everything has its place, there’s no judgment from Saviour World,” adds Ollie. “We’re just providing another option for the curious younger man.”
“I can only speak to my own experience, but for me, the medication didn’t work, and it was an easy way out,” echoes O’Connor.
“It’s a lot harder to do the work, improve yourself and get active every day – but again I can only speak for myself.”
The Cost of Being Saved
James O’Connor is among several high profile athletes that Saviour World works with, also on the list English tight end prop Kyle Sinckler and former pro, Danny Cipriani.
Deep pockets can be helpful when you’re selling deep wisdom.
“Money is not an issue, there are no worries for money when you understand need over greed,” explains Ollie.
“When you’re on this path everything you need finds you, it’s all about the law of attraction and the vibrations you put out there.”
But still, the bottom line is: you need to worry about the bottom line.
“Everybody contributes through their own choice, it’s never asked, everyone just wants to chuck in because it resonates,” maintains Ollie.
“I have recently put money in,” confirms O’Connor.
“It’s not a business where I am looking to make money; it is my way of giving back. I’ve backed several start-ups that have failed; this one has saved my life.”
For all my scepticism of programs like Saviour World, there’s no denying that the man sitting opposite me seems at peace with himself.
“I know what it’s done for me, I know how broken I was, I know I wanted to exit life,” he says.
“I remember those feelings; I can still reach out and grab them.”
But now he is more interested in grabbing the opportunities that come his way. This weekend James O’Connor will return to the Wallabies’ starting lineup for the final Test of the year against Argentina.
“No one ever thought he’d play for the Wallabies ever again, he was forgotten about, discarded on the scrap heap,” says Ollie.
“And by walking out this Saturday in the No.10 jersey for the Wallabies, he can influence younger men simply by being a success.”
While elements of Saviour World’s self-help program may be questionable at best, dubious at worst, it has revitalised O’Connor.
“I can understand why people are cynical, it might sound like a lot of jargon, but it’s helped me focus on the man I was supposed to be,” explains O’Connor.
“I’m back in Australia, playing the best rugby of my career. Saviour World has given me a reason to live again.”