Friday 28 October 2016

O'Connell in a land where nobody feels any pain

Paul O'Connell and Michael Conlan prove the saying, 'greatness can come from anywhere'

Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30

Went down fighting: Paul O'Connell's World Cup ended abruptly but not before inspiring Ireland to beat the French
Went down fighting: Paul O'Connell's World Cup ended abruptly but not before inspiring Ireland to beat the French

At some stage last week it probably started to dawn on Paul O'Connell that this is out of his control now. At some stage it must finally have hit him - he is in the pantheon of the Irish gods now, whether he likes it or not.

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Even if he were somehow to wake up this morning with his hamstring mysteriously healed, ready to play, he might be quietly informed that he is no longer eligible for such mundane assignments, that he does not belong any more in this realm of mortal men.

He may be suffering all sorts of agonies of disappointment and frustration and disgust that this day has been taken away from him. But it has been overwhelmingly decided on his behalf that he has already done enough.

During the week, we saw this short film of O'Connell outside the team hotel on crutches, waiting for a car to arrive. He seemed to be very quiet, very down, unaware this might be seen on the internet. And when the car arrived he could be seen easing himself slowly into the back seat, protecting his injury, just like some ordinary fellow whose back 'goes out' when he gets up too quickly from his favourite armchair.

It was hard to look at these pictures and think that this was really Paul O'Connell. Already he had crossed over to the other side, to be with the immortals in a land where nobody feels any pain.

Yes it ended badly for him, as a player, with a horrible injury. But listening to a lot of the reaction last week, there was this underlying feeling that when you look at it in a broader sense, with an eye towards the mythical and the timeless aspects of this, it was not such a bad ending at all - it might even turn out to be the perfect ending.

Even the longest and the most illustrious sporting career can be darkened by something that goes wrong in the final act - most famously, Steven Gerrard slipped, and Liverpool lost the league. According to legend anyway. And Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi , thus losing the World Cup Final, again according to legend.

But O'Connell is forever frozen in the mind of a nation leading his men against the French, breaking the French, a vision of pure heroism, untarnished. Even the fact that he was carried off at half-time had a kind of a mythical dimension to it, a sense that he literally could not do any more.

He gave us the moment, and we seized it. Paddy has been around too long, watching things getting away from him, to be worrying about how this injury might affect Ireland's chances in the latter stages of the tournament. To be wondering if this might make the difference between winning the Rugby World Cup and coming up just short. It was immediately understood that we wouldn't be taking any negatives out of this.

In sport, the people of Ireland are living only for the day - and for Paul O'Connell, there can never be a bad day from now on.

Not on the rugby field, and probably not in any other field either. There is something classless about him in the best sense, something deeply understated that reaches beyond the boundaries of any caste - if a man of rugby can transcend that, he can transcend anything.

And look, here comes the boxer Michael Conlan from Belfast, an actual world champion representing Ireland. Perhaps the most astounding thing was not just that Conlan became the champion in Doha, but that his odds to win the bantamweight final were 1-5.

Which means that to win 10 you had to bet 50. Though many of us know as little about the finer points of boxing as we do about rugby, the notion of a boxer representing Ireland being such a massive favourite is extraordinary - you would think he was one of those crack eastern Europeans who were always beating the Irish lads in these tournaments either because they were much better, or because their sinister handlers had taken the trouble beforehand to arrange the result with the judges, just in case. Or both.

It's as if Conlan just didn't know any of that, as if he arrives at these things thinking these guys haven't got a chance of beating him, not a prayer, because he is, after all, the great Michael Conlan.

And the fact that he is perfectly correct in this thinking, doesn't make it any less wondrous. He is not from the same world as Paul O'Connell, and yet that old Jewish saying was never more appropriate - greatness can come from anywhere.

Sunday Independent

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