James O’Connor’s best friend this week would appear, bizarrely, to be Manu Tuilagi. The completely overblown furore that erupted over ‘bunnygate’ has masked a more serious story of a young player stepping out of line. It was reported earlier this week that O’Connor was denied boarding of a team flight at Perth airport for reportedly being too drunk, but (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) this story has gone largely under the radar thanks to the non-event that is the Tuilagi and Cameron incident. The ARU have opened an investigation into the incident which is ‘ongoing’.
O’Connor is part of the unfortunately self-styled ‘Three Amigos’ – along with Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale – who have become notorious for making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Cooper famously called the environment in the Wallaby camp ‘toxic’ on a television programme, rather than taking any concerns he had to the senior management to work on it. He was, as a result (and quite rightly), dropped from the squad.
Kurtley Beale’s incidents with alcohol in the recent past have been well documented, the worst moment coming when he allegedly attacked his team captain and another player on a bus back from a heavy loss for his franchise the Rebels. To be fair to Beale he has admitted his mistakes and has since undertaken rehab.
Before we jump to conclusions and chastise O’Connor and his chums too much, we must take a step back. All players should be allowed to enjoy themselves after a game and rugby, of course, has an ingrained culture of taking that enjoyment to notorious levels. No one is saying O’Connor shouldn’t be allowed to have a few beers.
The issue is this: with a record such as his, does he not realise it might be sensible to reign it in a bit when you know you’re going to be out in public? Getting so plastered you are refused entry to a flight might be hilarious on a stag do, but when you’re a professional rugby player with a poor disciplinary record it shows nothing less than terrible judgement. Whether he likes it or not he is a role-model, and that type of behaviour is just not acceptable.
Of course the problem is far more deep-seated than the alcohol issues. The so-called ‘Three Amigos’ have shown a disregard for their peers and their superiors on numerous occasions now. The celebrity life afforded them seems to have gone to their head to the point where they think they are bigger than the team. That is surely one thing that is unacceptable in rugby.
Even worse than all of that – in my opinion anyway – came after the recent Wallaby loss to New Zealand, their second in as many weeks. Michael Lynagh – a man in a far better position than myself to comment on something like this – picked up on it on the Sky coverage: O’Connor was seen laughing and joking around moments after another crushing defeat to their closest rivals.
Lynagh himself was distraught in the studio – why was O’Connor, having just played in the game himself, not experiencing the same emotions multiplied many times over? Does it not mean as much to him now as it did in Lynagh’s day? Anyone who has played and cared about rugby (or sport in general, for that matter) should know that it is no fun to lose, especially to your fiercest rival. When that stops mattering to you, what is left? Are you ever likely to truly be giving your all?
A superb article in the Sydney Morning Herald recently went into more detail about this apparent lack of desire in what they called the ‘20% of the squad that lets down the other 80%’. If you have not read it yet, I urge you to follow that link and do so.
The Three Amigos are undoubtedly prodigiously talented, which is ironically what has propelled them to super-stardom and all the baggage that has come with it. They are capable of things on the rugby pitch that others simply are not, but there surely comes a point when that ability is outweighed by the off-field dramas and disregard for the rules and respect of your teammates. And it is not like they don’t have decent replacements in these positions – we are not talking about front five players here. Australia do not want for quality backs.
While Tuilagi’s actions were immature, they were also harmless. No one can say Tuilagi does not care about the teams he plays for, or thinks he is above everyone else – you simply do not survive in an environment like the Tigers with an attitude like that. Conversely, O’Connor has just been dropped from the books at the Melbourne Rebels, the newest Australian franchise and one that, frankly, is hardly in a position to cast off its biggest name lightly. That speaks volumes.
At what point do the ARU cut their losses and say enough is enough? It must be fast approaching.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43