Sport Rugby

Monday 26 June 2017

'Everything Rory does is inspirational'

David Kelly

David Kelly

Paul O'Connell misses playing golf. Correction. He misses playing golf well. So he's allowed to live his passion vicariously. Today it is Rory McIlroy, a champion treading shakily over the bumps and hollows upon the coastline of Kent.

As he watches in Ireland's World Cup base at Carton House, he is as much enamoured by McIlroy's patience as anything else. Yet this is also a guy whose every public utterance demands historic achievements of himself.

Rewind the tape and O'Connell remembers being at his maiden 2003 World Cup and just being happy to be there.

"No responsibility," he recalls. "I really enjoyed that tournament, rooming with Anthony Foley."

Nobody asked him whether Ireland would win it. Nobody in Ireland seemed to care one way or other. Beating England was still a cause for all-night drinking in those days.

"But try telling Keith Wood we weren't there to win it!" O'Connell rejoinders. He was a lone voice though.

Eight years further on, the ambitions have broadened to touch every player and supporter in the land.

At least he can share the burden. McIlroy is alone as he negotiates the exacting dunes on this gloomy July morning. His insouciance inspires O'Connell.

When O'Connell went to the World Cup as a confident gazelle in 2003, he was 23. McIlroy is 18 months younger and has already conquered the world.

"He's just so impressive in everything he does," enthuses O'Connell. "Down to his interviews, his manner and the way he handled himself after the Masters.

"Everything he does is impressive and most of all he's just a joy to watch. I think we're going to have a lot of fun watching him over the next few years challenging for the Majors."

Where once Padraig Harrington plotted a mental path by which Ireland could negotiate the minefields en route to Grand Slam '09, McIlroy's boundless energy and natural brio bears a promise of even greater riches.

"Yeah, he has a lovely confidence about himself. Especially the way he handled the Masters. He couldn't understand why there was such a big deal made of it, he was only 22 or whatever and felt that he had plenty ahead of him.

"I don't think people were necessarily writing him off then but there were a lot of people questioning whether he could ever recover from this. But Rory just seemed so nonchalant about the whole thing. He just strolled into the US Open and seemed to have a great head on him. He's definitely an inspirational guy alright."

O'Connell can barely break 80 these days but in his teens, he was a gifted amateur. Within two years of stepping on a course, he was down to a four handicap.

Sadly, Bob Rotella wasn't around to tell him that golf was not a game of perfect. His parents, a la the McIlroys, allowed himself and brother Justin to construct a green in their garden.

But O'Connell, who also aspired to become an Olympian swimmer until realising that he couldn't reach perfection in the pool either, would grow ever more despondent with each bogey.

"I miss being good at it," he muses, when he confirms he won't be able to take up an invitation to play alongside McIlroy in the Irish Open Pro-Am next month. "I'm playing very little golf and I'd probably struggle to perform on such a hard course."

It was swimming, rather than golf, which more informs the enormous second-row presence Ireland will bring with them to the World Cup in New Zealand this September.

From the Monday morning when he woke his dad, Mick, a few minutes before 6.0, O'Connell was soaked in chlorine-fumed dreams of Olympic glory. Such a discipline before hitting one's teens stands to a man.

"It was probably the training that has applied to me down the line more than anything else," he says. "We trained so much, a couple of hours before and after school and more on the weekends.

"The training I've done since has not seemed as bad in retrospect because I've never done as much as I would have in school. The work ethic doesn't come too hard to me because I was used to it from a young age."

And so as you read tweets and messages from players throughout the country recounting tales of horror from the pre-season training pitches, O'Connell's reaction is a one of shrugged acceptance.

"I think it's an enjoyable time of the year, knowing you have five days of graft and then your weekend off to do what you like. It's just getting the body ready and keeping on top of skills.

"But when you have those two days off, you know you can put your body hard at it for the five days. It's a nice time of year."

He's known worse.

This summer has already been tinged with grief.

It fell to him to inform his friends and colleagues of the death of Paul Darbyshire, Munster's strength and conditioning coach, a demise of unseemly haste at the hands of the vengeful Motor Neurone Disease.

Supporters and Munster staff were about to depart on the second leg of a charity cycle from Thomond Park to Warrington in northern England, Darbyshire's home town; they would just about make it in time for his funeral.

'Darbs' was just 41. More than a strength coach, he was a confidant to the players, particularly, as was the case with O'Connell for much of last year, to those afflicted by injury.

"It's such a sad story," says O'Connell quietly.

"I remember us in Portugal this time last summer and this guy was fitter than 90pc of the players.

"He was in that good physical shape.

"It was tough seeing him deteriorating as he did. But at the same time it was inspiring as well.

"He just took it all on the chin. He took it always with good humour, he had a great sense of humour right to the end.

"For those of us who saw it up close, he was so brave."

To those brave and faithful, Munster's motto informs, nothing is impossible. The Munster family's strength in unity was a source of comfort to Darbyshire.

"He was inspired by that. In the professional era some of that can slip away. So it was great to see that alive and well in Munster rugby.

"His memory will live on with us, especially in the gym.

"Jeez, he liked to train with the players. Very often he could do three or four sessions in one day and he'd still be getting the better of us. He was just inspirational."

Despite his status in Warrington as a former rugby league pro, it was his Munster clan who were designated to send him off with his pre-ordained funeral plans.

'Stand Up and Fight' adorned the mass booklet and Ronan O'Gara was instructed to explain the fistic application of the operatic ditty to Munster.

Barry Murphy, prematurely retired, led a gritty, moving rendition of 'The Fields of Athenry'. O'Connell was amongst a sextet of fellow Munster pall-bearers.

"It's easy to be cynical about the support and all that but he was really taken aback over those last few months," says O'Connell.

"Sometimes in this professional age, you can take all that for granted but it's only in circumstances like this, when something happens somebody on the outside, you see how special this sport is and how special Munster rugby is."

So you see why O'Connell is more eager than ever to stick faithfully to the McIlroy dictum of playing every shot as it comes.

He won't allow himself to get as flustered before a World Cup as so many did last time.

"We've gathered a lot more experience since then, young and old have won things consistently. When we beat France in 2009, and everyone shouted 'Grand Slam', we ignored that and just focused on each game. That's when we're at our best."

He appreciates the strength of the competition but, just as Rory McIlroy could not have slept last night had he been worrying about what Phil Mickelson may shoot, O'Connell disdains such wearisome conjecture.

He admires opponents but is never in awe of them. Just like the Niagara Falls, which he visited in Toronto with his wife Emily and young son Patrick this summer.

"I looked at it from every conceivable angle. I wasn't that scared but I have to say they're very impressive."

Many will look at the Tri-Nations and think the same.

This could be O'Connell's last shot at a World Cup. Yet he dares not to think of such things.

"I'm enjoying it more than ever," he insists.

And he appreciates life more than ever now. The golf clubs can gather the cobwebs.

"I intend to play plenty of golf one day," he smiles. "Just not yet."

Irish Independent

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