Sport Rugby

Thursday 27 October 2016

Comment: He won't feel it now but it's fitting Paul O'Connell's last battle was in Green

Published 09/02/2016 | 12:09

Paul O'Connell has brought the curtain down on his career
Paul O'Connell has brought the curtain down on his career

WARRIORS, when they fall for the last time, want to do so with their armour and shield by their side in the field of battle.

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Paul O’Connell will never get to fulfil a desire that, for us mere mortals who thrilled to his bravery for the duration of this millennium, seems utterly perplexing.

At least he got to deliver his own obsequies and not have the termination of his playing career develop into the kind of tawdry soap opera in which Toulon appear to wallow.

This is, indeed, goodbye yet, however painful, in his mind and clearly his body, it is delivered on his terms.

Nothing had became of his leaving the international stage, even though that, too, had jarred, as he lay prone on the turf as Ireland conquered France in an epic World Cup encounter last autumn which had seemed to be choreographed especially to display his courage and self-sacrifice.

A new career beckoned at Toulon but he would only get to pull on the shirt for the ritualistic welcome – the ripped hamstring never recovering to allow him to prolong his career as other legendary contemporaries, such as Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams, had managed.

The injury was worse than even he feared and the recovery much slower, yet still yesterday he spoke of good fortune, as he reminded us of his longevity when contrasted with Felix Jones, a retiree at from this brutal sport at just 28.

That O’Connell managed to last so long, although admittedly there were times when retirement threatened before in other, injury-stricken, dark days.

It will not feel this way to O’Connell this morning but, for his legions of supporters and devotees, it will somehow seem fitting that his last actions as a professional were played out in a green jersey.

Indeed, many more may muse softly to themselves as they pay tribute that his last professional appearance for a club team came not in the red of Toulon, but in the red of his beloved, native Munster.

And now, so suddenly, after 14 years, it has taken less than 14 seconds for a doctor to confirm that the career, the life, O’Connell had known so intimately had come to that brutal end dished out by sport’s unforgiving lottery.

"You're either going to get back to being strong, fast and powerful again and if you're not, that makes the decision for you,” he told us recently, with typically prophetic zeal.

He worked five hours every day at a rehab process and, even though the more he sweated the less it seemed likely he might recover, O’Connell tried to forget about the big picture.

A penny for his thoughts as he watched Peyton Manning last Sunday soar to new heights with the swinging doors of retirement beckoning?

He achieved everything in the game; Grand Slam, captain of back-to-back championship winning teams, European Cup and Celtic League and, after captaining the Lions in 2009, forming a pivotal part of the series win in 2013.

He brought happiness to so many people and, amongst all the tributes paid yesterday, twitter might record that alongside the word “legend”, the most commonly used epithet was “gentleman.”

Of all his skills, and his physical, intimidating presence was leavened with technical proficiency at the set-piece – how many people have that picture of him soaring in Croke Park on their walls? – his ability to recognise the values of sport were just as valuable.

Respect coursed through his body – towards all his opponents and all who came in contact with him, from the Seals swimming club in Limerick or Limerick golf course; their sports’ loss was rugby’s gain.

I was lucky to ghost-write his column on the 2005 Lions tour and, after the first effort, we met a second time and frowned, “That’s not really my voice.”

We found it thereafter – he always came fully prepared and with hand-written notes – and it was there he developed the intense interest in the professionalism that had driven England and Clive Woodward to their 2003 World Cup.

“There’s no reason Ireland can’t be as good as them,” he told me. He would take that philosophy and translate it to both Munster and Ireland.

He never demanded sacrifice of others before offering the most of himself, first. Manic aggression would never be expected were he not the one leading the way.

In different ways, whether you were a fellow hard-nosed professional like Brian O’Driscoll, or an ordinary supporter, he made us all try to do better and be better.

His second life begins now, the new family he has created will occupy more of his time after what he will doubtless feel are over-done and embarrassing tributes.

He is uncomfortable with people talking about him, whether it was the vicious cancer rumours that attended his last major injury and which, as he told me, reached his father’s ears, or the endless lavishing of praise upon his broad shoulders.

For, you see, Paul O’Connell has just spent a few days tortuously waiting to tell everyone what he had been so afraid of confronting himself – that this was the end of this chapter of a remarkable sporting life.

He was afraid of letting people down.

“You just have to move on,” he says, as if apologetic about the desolation of yesterday’s announcement.

We will soon see it as the end of a beginning for a man destined to become a supreme coaching influence in the years to come.

Thanks for the memories. Now it is half-time. The promise is of more to come. Paul O’Connell’s story has not reached a conclusion.

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