George Hook: Icon Paul O'Connell will return as coach and make Munster great again
Published 10/02/2016 | 02:30
It was inevitable that it would end this way. At the Millennium Stadium, when Paul O'Connell collapsed to the ground in agony during Ireland's final World Cup pool match against France in September, the horror of his injury was immediately apparent.
Later, when the full extent of the damage was confirmed - a hamstring ripped clear off the bone - it was highly unlikely that O'Connell would ever get to pull on the red jersey of Toulon.
Even for a man of almost superhuman powers, the potential to make a full recovery from such a serious injury was always going to be a step too far.
So, at 36 years of age and with time catching up on a war-torn body, medical science decided to intervene and put an end to O'Connell's French dream.
Certainly, no player more richly deserved to have a spell in the sun than the great Ireland and Munster captain. After fighting courageously in the trenches in the most physically demanding of positions for nigh-on 17 years, O'Connell was fully entitled to a handsome pay packet and an alternative life experience in the south of France.
That it hasn't come to pass is indeed a great pity.
Ireland will always remember him fondly. When O'Connell himself reflects on his career, he will be able to draw from a well of thrilling moments for province and country.
Heineken Cup titles with Munster in 2006 and 2008, Celtic leagues, Six Nations crowns with Ireland, including the Grand Slam in 2009, a Lions tour as captain and multiple man of the match awards over a glittering career. A World Cup semi-final spot is perhaps the only missing accolade on a decorated rugby CV.
Contrary to Munster folklore, O'Connell was never the biggest man. A tall, naturally thin frame was a source of constant struggle for a man who fought every day to make himself into the giant, commanding lock that we all came to know.
O'Connell constantly consumed fuel to support a ferocious appetite for training. His playing weight and rock-hard physique were not natural gifts from God, but rather the results of incredible dedication.
Stories of his attention to detail are famous across the rugby world. Ronan O'Gara still talks about O'Connell's influence in the dressing-room and his ability to draw players to him.
The great Victor Matfield yesterday attested to the toughest opponent he had ever come across. Famously, O'Connell was even prepared to learn Afrikaans to get a jump on the Springboks' lineout.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail . . . O'Connell lived and played by that code.
As to his future? A coaching career surely beckons. Because the attributes that made O'Connell such an influential and inspirational leader on the pitch will be equally transferable to the dressing-room and the training ground.
Perhaps Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast might snap him up for the vacant forwards coach position in Grenoble? The French dream might still come to pass, after all, even if it won't be as a player.
Ultimately, all roads will eventually lead to back Munster. Because even though O'Connell was headed for a final playing spell with Toulon, his heart and soul was always in the streets of Limerick and with his province.
And when Anthony Foley is eventually moved on from his current post, what odds on Munster's favourite son coming back to take over the job and restore some much needed confidence in an under-performing team?
That might take some time, but with Ronan O'Gara equally well placed and successful at Racing 92 and O'Connell now forced to turn his own thoughts towards the immediate future, it would be safe to assume that the future of Munster looks bright.
For now though, rugby bids farewell to a stalwart of the game and a giant in his position. Ireland will be a long time finding O'Connell's like again, but his standards in excellence and passion for the sport will leave a lasting legacy. And though his move to Toulon has ultimately been scuppered by injury, it is perhaps fitting that he finished his playing career in the green of Ireland.
Paul O'Connell will always be remembered as a legend of the game and a superb ambassador for club and country. Irish by birth and, for the brave and the faithful over the last decade and a half, Munster by the grace of God.