'It was a very tough time but I didn't despair'
As John Lennon fans commemor-ated the 30th anniversary of his death on all continents yesterday, one of his most poignant lyrics might have shed some light on the horrors that Paul O'Connell has been through during the last eight months.
"Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans," Liverpool's most famous mop head once sang. For O'Connell, his career plans went on hold during a worrying spiral of injury hell that forced him to utterly reassess his life.
From a position whereby he would have hoped to have launched Munster's third assault on a Heineken Cup crown, as well as leading Ireland's challenge for a long-awaited win in the southern hemisphere, injury struck severely at the prime of his playing life.
Now, having become a father during his professional absence, he has been forced to sit back and take stock; from where he may continue his professional playing career -- he is already musing upon a change of scenery, which may alert the IRFU, as well as French club owners -- to what he might like to do when he hangs up his boots.
"Our coaches work very long hours," he smiles, contemplating life outside of playing, something that he had plenty of lonesome time to reflect upon during his lengthy absence.
"They work seven days a week and they always seem to be stressed. Coaching is something I always had a massive amount of interest in until I saw the amount of work that Laurie Fisher and Tony McGahan do.
"It's not that I would turn away from the hard work, but if you were to coach the way they do, there wouldn't be a lot of time for golf, and I intend to play a lot of golf when I'm finished. Coaching is something that interests me when I finish. Certainly I would have to take a break and assess, and probably travel a little bit and look at other clubs, because I have only ever been in one place. We'll have to see. It's a long way away yet."
For such matters are not of immediate concern; indeed, he is thankful that one of the main benefits of such a prolonged absence is that he will arguably be Ireland's best prepared specimen once World Cup 2011 arrives.
"That is what I've been clinging on to, that's what everyone says
'You can tack it on to the end of your career and you'll be fresh for the World Cup.' I do think it's something that definitely applies.
"The wear and tear of training, not just fitness training, but the wear and tear of doing 50-60 line-outs a day, three or four days a week does take a toll on the body. For the body to get a break from that will no doubt be a good thing."
Such positive thinking eroded any of the natural self-doubts that could have infected someone cut down from their physical prime, into a period of introspection where even the best medics struggled to cope with his ailments.
"No, I didn't really despair," he confesses. "I suppose the injury was so innocuous and that was the thing that was bugging me. It was something small to begin with and it just got worse and worse. If you get a serious injury day one, sometimes it's a lot easier mentally to deal with. Barry Murphy went through something similar to me with his ankle where he thought he might be out for three or four weeks, but it rumbled on for the bones of a year.
"That's when it gets very frustrating. The fact that it was something small and we were always on the edge of nearly fixing it. I never thought I wouldn't get back. It was a tough time alright.
"It was a very tough time. I think you can pick up a long term injury and you could be out for six months and while it is very frustrating, if you know from day one, what you have and what you are dealing with, have a time frame, it is easier to get on with it.
"I didn't have that until about three months into the injury. That was the frustrating part. I have had other injuries where I have broken my hand -- you'd be out for nine or 10 weeks, but you are able to train and work hard.
"You can do loads of leg weights, speed, fitness all that kind of thing. The injury for me entailed about half an hour of physio a day, doing very little else. That's very frustrating when you can't work hard or can't train hard."
His comeback has been restorative, starting with a bow for his alma mater, Young Munster, on the sacred Thomond Park turf against Shannon.
"You look who he opted to play for when he came back from his injury -- Young Munster -- rather than Munster," says another member of the second-rowers union, Ospreys rival Alan Wyn Jones. "So he was showing respect for the team he first played for and he didn't want to just take someone's place in the Munster line-up without having earned the right to figure for them again. It shows the class act that he is."
Hence, O'Connell's modest appraisal that he can't merely assume the right to demand a starting berth; he, more than anyone, lives by the Munster credo that the jersey is only ever on loan.
The rapturous reception accorded him on successive weekends in Limerick's rugby HQ, however, reflects the anxiety amongst Munster -- and Ireland -- supporters who realise just how much he has been missed.
Albeit he admits to rustiness. "In the Shannon game," he relates, "I got penalised for one of the newer penalties where I held the man, brought him to ground, stayed on the ball and didn't release."
Life keeps moving on. Professionally, O'Connell is at last living his with renewed purpose.
- Due to injury, the original referee for the Munster v Ospreys fixture, Dave Pearson, has been replaced by Christophe Berdos.