independent

Monday 21 April 2014

I want to play with Zebo and O’Mahony for as long as possible, says Paul O'Connell

Paul O'Connell soars and swoops majestically like a discarded paper bag fluttering upon a sudden breeze.

He is surrounded by playful, gleeful kids but, as they throw rugby balls around for fun in the midday sun, this still represents work for his O2 paymasters.

For in O'Connell's mind, he is an Irish international. Even when he is sitting on his couch watching an Irish international.

A passer-by in the St Stephen's Green lunch rush tosses him an endearing comment, if inadvertently and momentarily jarring.

"Jaysus, I hope you mind yourself for the weekend, Paulie!"

It is as if the well-meaning interloper has just instantly remembered that iconic picture from Croke Park, 2007, the one that bedecks almost every drinking saloon in the country.

Another day when he sky-scraped so regally for his country.

Heaving

Except this Sunday, when England return once more to Dublin, he will not form part of the heaving infield throng.

Last weekend, he watched agog, like many of his compatriots, from his couch. It was hard to resist the urge to jump up and down then, too.

"Ah yeah, I'd be giving out and that. But I've relaxed a bit. I wasn't really nervous towards the end. I was confident we'd close it out."

The curious thing about being in Cardiff last weekend, after witnessing a game that many Irish supporters had been genuinely anxious about, was that O'Connell's name was barely mentioned.

As Brian O'Driscoll and Simon Zebo hogged all the headlines, the most recent Lions captain sat alone on his couch untouched by the laments of his country's supporters. Momentarily forgotten as a new Ireland flourished.

Another reminder of the professional athlete's mortality? Perhaps.

And yet O'Connell is keen to discard the image of the brooding convalescent, shaking his fists in despair at his glacial progress from yet another seemingly intractable injury.

He seems almost liberated and sparkling in health; unlike O'Driscoll, who in his injury time-outs can balloon like Augustus Gloop if he eats an extra Jaffa Cake, O'Connell sheds weight when sidelined and appears as svelte as a distance runner.

Although he agonised about eventually ceding to an operation on his troublesome back, since bequeathing himself to the knife his motivation has been transformed. Now he has a plan of action, a timetable. Goals and targets. No limits.

Sometimes last year, he would pitch up for a day's rehab without knowing if the time expended would recoup any investment at all.

An athlete thrives on being able to maximise every fibre of his physical being; there were days when O'Connell found it impossible to gauge whether he was helping or hindering himself.

"That's the worst of it, not knowing," he reveals. "It's how long is a piece of string. That was the case with the groin, which was just a killer of an injury to deal with. And it was like that with this injury at the beginning.

"You can't flog yourself. I've broken my hand three times but you can still train the house down. You can run, do leg weights, everything. And even though you may be sitting in the stand at the end of the week, and finding it tough, you know you've put down a great week's work. So when you come back, you're confident of being better.

"With these injuries, you're not even sure what work you're achieving every day. It's frustrating. It's part and parcel of it. Being mentally strong."

You'd think he'd be used to the mental side by now. Letting his brain cope with the fact that his body is unable to respond like it should. If anything, it gets harder.

Toughest

"I wouldn't say I have that nailed down at all," he demurs. "The week before the operation was probably the toughest. There were so many big games going on.

"I hadn't decided to do it at that stage. We'd managed to treat it years before without an operation. But eventually we had to make a decision. I'd been in the zone of wondering 'is this ever going to come right at all?'.

"You'd be passing guys covered in sweat after an hour-long session, after beasting themselves. And you're going in with a jeans and a polo shirt because you're only doing light stuff.

"You feel like a fraud. You don't know where you're going.

"But after the operation, you can start planning the future straight away. It really gives you a lift."

He can see some light after all the shade. He smiles at the irony that were he not a rugby player, he may never have discovered his back ailment. His Munster coach Rob Penney expressed alarm about ensuring a quality of life beyond retirement.

"He was trying to be nice, for I'm certainly not at that stage and I never was. In terms of throwing Paddy (his son) up and down or spinning him in the air, that's never been a problem, even before the operation.

"And it never will be. Touch wood, I've never had bad knee and ankle problems. Apart from the back, I'm in very good shape. Hopefully, if I get a good recovery, I'll continue to be."

He speaks admiringly of O'Driscoll and his seemingly endless ability to successfully rehabilitate too. They are different athletes but ultimately their warrior spirits inextricably link them as talismanic figures.

In Cardiff, you sensed that O'Driscoll was performing as if every moment may be his last. O'Connell does not necessarily agree with the concept. But he understands its genesis.

"Maybe in terms of being in a team environment, I'm probably a team player now more than I've ever been. I'd be doing every single possible thing to make sure the team is in the best possible shape it can be.

"Probably when you're younger, you look after your own backyard more. Now I enjoy sitting around shooting the breeze with the younger guys, bringing my experience to that side of it.

"But if you say 'leaving everything out there', are you saying that somebody didn't before? I know what you're saying. Maybe it's that I'm a lot more appreciative of things now that I'm older."

If that all sounds a little too wistfully melancholic, O'Connell immediately disabuses the notion by shifting giddily in his chair when Zebo's name is again mentioned. Being amongst the likes of the vivacious winger and steely young men like Peter O'Mahony fills O'Connell with a similar sense of vigour.

"Part of me wants me to be around for as much of Zebo's and O'Mahony's career as possible," he enthuses. "They're great fellas, very dedicated, very aware of what it means to play for Munster and Ireland.

"But they're great fun to be around and to play with. I want to play with them for as long as possible because they're going to become very special players for Ireland.

"So much of my confidence comes from training and preparing hard. While I can do that, I can play.

"But when it gets to the stage where my load starts to be managed, and I'm not doing as much as the other lads, I don't know if I'll get as much enjoyment out of it then, because you're not being the best you can be. That's probably when I'll end.

"I'm not planning a Brad Thorn (still playing at 37) or a Simon Shaw (at 39). I'm just enjoying the training. Because that's where the belief builds from.

"So many achievements come from training with fellas day after day, building that belief. For as long as I can do that, I want to keep playing."

It is a defiant and definitive declaration. Currently gone, maybe. But certainly not forgotten.

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