O'Connell's passion will set tempo for Ireland campaign
Munster warrior the perfect leader as Schmidt's charges prepare for battle
Published 31/01/2014 | 02:30
During the week leading up to Ireland's momentous World Cup victory over Australia in 2011, Paul O'Connell fell victim to one of the squad's infamous "court sittings."
His 'punishment' for throwing six with a dice was to have a cat's nose and whiskers drawn onto his face, coupled with a commitment to leave the artwork in place for 24 hours. Professional rugby tends to exist as this bizarre paradox of giddy childishness sitting cheek to jowl with epochal machismo.
And O'Connell, one of the game's most ferocious competitors, can transition from one to the other without conspicuous effort. The hard, taciturn figure, so familiar to rugby crowds obscures a lighter side to the Limerick man. A man Ronan O'Gara describes as "one of the wittiest guys you'll ever meet."
In the build-up to that Australia game, O'Connell would deliver a compelling 20-minute speech to his fellow Irish forwards, cat's whiskers still in place. Donncha O'Callaghan recalls the group being so engrossed in what his second-row colleague was saying, that the comedy of the image simply never registered.
"He was sitting there looking like something out of a pantomime with a tough audience in the palm of his hand, setting the tone for one of the biggest encounters of our career" wrote O'Callaghan in his autobiography, 'Joking Apart'.
"Only O'Connell could have pulled it off."
At some point over the next 48 hours, Ireland's captain will pick his moment to set the emotional tempo for Sunday's Six Nations opener against Scotland. For Joe Schmidt, the comfort will be in knowing that – whatever else his team may lack this weekend – O'Connell will ensure that focus is not among them.
He is a natural communicator and the template of that communication is an implicit understanding that nothing he seeks of others reaches beyond what he seeks of himself.
O'Connell's elevation to the captaincy, thus, carried a more natural ring to it than last year's curious decision by Declan Kidney to promote Jamie Heaslip in place of Brian O'Driscoll. Heaslip is a wonderful player, yet his natural game-setting is a kind of independent chill.
At times during last year's Championship, he could be seen deferring to his predecessor when it came to big-game calls. In his rugby life, O'Connell has deferred to no-one.
Famously, he knocked himself out when scoring a try on his international debut against Wales in February of '02 and O'Connell has since held emblematic status through a period of unprecedented success for both Munster and Ireland.
When he recently signed a two-year extension to his IRFU contract, O'Connell alluded to a hankering for life abroad and the challenge, specifically, of a rugby life in France that incorporated "learning the language and experiencing something different."
And, whilst there was speculation in the mid-2000s that such a move might occur for O'Connell, he has never actually held direct talks with a Top 14 club. The speculation has been fuelled simply by an understanding that the Young Munster man would tick every conceivable box for the attritional style of club rugby in France.
The French have a particular affection for forwards who submit themselves utterly to the white-heat of battle and, in O'Connell, they see a man who has – historically – sought confrontation with noted gunslingers like Sebastien Chabal rather than keep to the shadows.
When the Clermont Auvergne crowd jeered him mercilessly in Montpellier last April before Munster's Heineken Cup semi-final defeat, the din was – above all – an acknowledgement of his status as a game-changer.
O'Connell had undergone back surgery at the end of 2012, yet managed to defy even the most optimistic medical prognoses to summon a remarkable, man-of-the-match performance in Munster's quarter-final victory over Harlequins. Of all the noted leaders in their dressing room, O'Connell was regarded as a kind of Munster patriarch.
The twice-weekly Midi Olympique rugby paper had focused hugely on the previous week's incident in which O'Connell's boot connected with Dave Kearney's head during a Pro12 game against Leinster.
In his book, 'Unguarded', O'Gara wrote of the energy now coming off the French crowd as they saw the villain coming out for his warm-up.
"I could see him talking to himself" wrote O'Gara. 'Come on ye... come on ye ...' I put out my hand and as he ran by he slapped it and shouted 'Let's f***ing kill these ... Rog!' It was f***ing special. He nearly knocked my shoulder out of its socket with the force of his high five."
O'Connell had been doubtful for the game yet, that morning, was declared fit without apparent reference to a test.
Within the Munster squad, his nickname has danced between 'Keano' and 'Psycho,' yet it would be wrong to depict him as some kind of one-dimensional human juggernaut.
Team-mates describe him as a voracious reader of books and a man forever programmed towards self-improve- ment.
He radiates deep emotional intelligence, too, and is known to have been deeply affected by his friendship with the remarkable Donal Walsh, who passed away in May. O'Connell seemed to recognise a fortitude in the terminally ill Kerry teenager that flew beyond the scope of some of the hardest men he has met in rugby.
Lions commitments prevented him from attending the funeral, but he was represented by O'Gara, who described his Ireland and Munster team-mate as "clearly rattled" by news of Walsh's death.
Within the dressing-rooms he frequents, there is the sense of O'Connell filling a gargantuan space now that, in his eventual absence, may come to feel like a chasm.