Replacing the irreplaceable
The eternal conundrum 'what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?' was finally solved when Paul O'Connell punched himself in the face
– Anonymous, circa 2006
PAUL O'CONNELL'S recurring injury problems have led to that most awkward of questions down Munster way – how will they replace the irreplaceable?
O'Connell's importance to Munster goes far beyond his abilities as a player. He is a man of real substance in every sense. He is blessed with a big physique and has the spirit and courage to match. By his very presence he commands respect.
"When some players talk in a dressing-room you switch off. When Paul talks you sit up a bit straighter and listen," explained one former international colleague this week.
"It's hard to put into words what he brings to a group and a dressing-room. A lot of fellas talk the talk. Paul also walks those steps."
O'Connell is a leader by nature. He has a naturally quiet disposition that disguises a competitive edge made of steel. By his actions as well as his words, he inspires.
The uncertainty over O'Connell's return from the back injury that has limited him to just two outings this season, has led some to question the level of influence the former Lions captain will have for club and country in the near future.
Talk of retirement may be premature but his continued absence is amplified by the loss of three Munster stalwarts to injury before this season even began.
Hooker Jerry Flannery was the first to succumb when his chronic calf problems negated him even attempting what would have been a fourth (or maybe even fifth) comeback.
David Wallace was then forced to call time on his stellar career following Munster's exit from last season's Heineken Cup. The flanker's reconstructed knee – banded together by titanium, steel rods and metal screws – did for him.
Wallace's forced retirement was especially damaging for Munster as it came just weeks after fellow back-row Denis Leamy also had to quit, because of a hip injury.
Leamy, like Wallace, had undergone surgery in an effort to repair the injury but finally came to the realisation that he had run out of time.
However, no one is suggesting that O'Connell will have to follow suit. Indeed, another former team-mate believes that once O'Connell recovers from this latest injury, there is nothing to suggest he won't be able to go on for another four or five seasons.
"Brad Thorn won a Heineken Cup medal with Leinster at 37. Nathan Hines did the same at 34 years of age with Leinster in 2011. Paul is only 33. Who's to say he won't continue playing until he is 37 or 38?" said the former colleague.
"He looks after himself supremely well. He eats well, does prehab and rehab, and while this latest injury is clearly causing him on-going problems, I certainly wouldn't be writing him off."
But even if O'Connell does come back in time for the business end of the saason, the day is approaching when his province – and country – will have to bid farewell to a warrior who has come to represent all that is good and brave about Munster.
He, Ronan O'Gara, Donncha O'Callaghan and Peter Stringer are the only remaining links to that first Heineken Cup title in 2006. When his cape is eventually folded away he will leave an enormous hole in both the Munster and Ireland teams. There is no room for sentiment in professional sport, however, so it will be filled. There is, after all, no alternative.
The impending retirement of John Hayes led to much gnashing of teeth and sleepless nights at the time. Munster and Ireland have both survived.
Similarly, while Leamy, Wallace, Flannery and Alan Quinlan have all been missed by Munster and Ireland, both teams have found replacements for these talismanic players.
Munster and Ireland are both well served by the presence of Donnacha Ryan. The former Tipperary inter-county minor footballer has stepped up to the mark in remarkable fashion for club and country.
His dominance over the much vaunted Saracens line-out, that had a 100pc return going into last Saturday's game, emphasised his growth in stature as a second-row of renown.
Munster are also well served by the endurance of O'Callaghan. O'Callaghan is actually older – by a number of months – than O'Connell but he remains in remarkable shape physically and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Munster are also very confident that their Academy and development programmes will yield them dividends. There are high hopes that Ian Nagle – who was courted by Northampton Saints not so long ago – Dave Foley, Brian Hayes and Philip Donnellan will, in time, be able to replace Paul O'Connell the player. Where they might struggle, though, is in replacing Paul O'Connell the talisman.
O'Connell's true worth to a team has never solely been measured by his considerable rugby skills; his influence was enhanced by his presence and by the respect he commands. He brings out the best in others. O'Callaghan probably summed it up best when he referenced how O'Connell, despite having had his front teeth knocked out in a game, played on regardless.
Everyone in professional sport is replaceable. That is the very essence of the game. Paul O'Connell isn't just "anyone", though. He is a special warrior. He inspires those around him and everyone in rugby – not just those from Munster – will be keeping fingers crossed that a man who is the archetypal gentle giant will regain his fitness and once again fill the Munster and Ireland shirts with dignity and distinction.
Munster, and Ireland will survive without him. Neither will want to do without him just yet, though.