Sunday 26 March 2017

A farewell to arms

One of Paul O'Connell's strengths was knowing how to get the best out of himself and others

Paul O'Connell. Photo: David Conachy
Paul O'Connell. Photo: David Conachy
Paul O'Connell Celebrates winning the Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Photo: David Conachy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The interview is all wrapped up and as the photographer moves in for his slice of the action, this seems like a good time to slip out the door. You know what's coming. With a bit of luck you might be in the car before he gets to the punchline and runs the risk of getting, well, punched. This reinforces the adage that it's never a good idea to work with children, animals or photographers.

I remember standing outside the changing rooms in Young Munster's ground in Derryknockane some 16 years ago while negotiations opened on an unlikely deal. Different snapper but same dilemma. Back then the artist wanted to get the Clohessy brothers to take a shower together, which he would then capture on film. Great idea. It didn't help that the younger of the two brothers wasn't prepared to talk to us never mind get his kit off. It was a long drive home.

Now we are back in Limerick, though in the plush surroundings of the Marriott Hotel, and the window through which I had hoped to escape has just closed. "Sure you may as well hang around," says the snapper. "You can hold the reflector for me." In the circumstances, you would sooner hold a live snake.

He then launches into his sales pitch to Paul O'Connell. The idea is this: O'Connell takes off his sports top and replaces it with a white shirt - prop number one - under which would be prop number two. As he outlines the image, he starts to slide prop number two out of the brown paper bag. It is a blue T-shirt with a logo on the front, only part of which would be visible in the photo with a shirt button or two left open. You can just see the top of the 'S' on the T-shirt when O'Connell intervenes with a horrified look on his face.

"Ah Jaysus, you've got to be joking."

* * * * *

That was from an interview with Paul O'Connell in February 2009. The memory of its discomfort is still vivid. Two things dominated my thinking on the trek back up the N7: the whingefest that was sure to follow from the snapper - as it turned out he saved the day with a stunning photograph, which accompanies this piece; and the near certainty that O'Connell would sooner submit to a cavity search than another interview with us.

Not only did he move on with grace, the wonder was how he had stayed in the room at all once the Superman plan started to unfold. He had a perfect handle on polite stubbornness. Your image of Paul O'Connell might not have combined the two. It told you something about the man.

The way with players is as follows: when they are young and unknown they are mostly keen to yak, to have their profile promoted and egos massaged. As they become more experienced they see the media chore as just that. Some have the cop to run with it anyway, understanding that it's frequently as painful for the tooth-puller as for the one sitting in the chair. Those not blessed with emotional intelligence simply behave badly.

The day before Ireland played Italy in London's Olympic Stadium four months ago, O'Connell was going through what would be his penultimate captain's run press conference. He was asked obvious questions to which he gave pretty good answers. As it meandered towards a conclusion one of the more eccentric in our number took the ball and ran in a different direction. No one wanted to follow. O'Connell, however, indulged him with a grace that was typical. 'We'll miss him when he's gone,' we agreed, as we gathered up our stuff to leave. No one realised just how quickly that would come.

If all this paints a picture of Paul O'Connell as a diplomat with the patience of Job then clearly there was another side to him. The one people paid in to watch.

It was notable how often he would name-check the All-Ireland League for it was that much mismanaged competition which opened the door to his stellar career. O'Connell's timing wasn't great though. By the time he made it into the Young Munster senior side their best days were behind them. He had been fascinated by the very rough edge that was the calling card of the Munsters' pack. "They weren't better than a lot of the teams they beat, but they beat the crap out of them," he said.

It brought them their only AIL title - in 1993 - and you wonder what they would have been like had he arrived in time to catch that train. As it was he did his best to recreate it, and it didn't take much to bring down the red mist when O'Connell was in the heat of battle. He was fairly wild, and we well remember the manic shoeing he doled out to Ronan O'Gara one day in Temple Hill. Even by the loose standards of rugby's etiquette at the time, it was noticeable.

By his own assessment, the Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005 - a classic exercise in hardship - did something to mellow him out a bit. His team-mates might have struggled to recognise this shift, but the better handle on his temper was perfectly illustrated in Thomond Park three years later when he ended up toe to toe with Jamie Cudmore. The Clermont second-row enjoys a nickname, Cuddles, which proves that rugby players are occasionally capable of exquisite irony. In this instance, O'Connell showed remarkable restraint before defending himself against a frenzied assault from the Canadian.

"It's a hard one because those little incidents are important psychologically for a forward pack and for yourself individually that you can't be standing for that type of thing," he said. "So while it was probably good that I didn't get sent off with him at the same time . . . you know, should I have been diggin' straight away? There's a happy medium there that you've got to weigh up in terms of standing up for yourself and for the pack and for the team and trying to keep your discipline to stay on the pitch. I didn't get the red but then they did dominate us in the second half. Sometimes you'd look back at little incidents like that and wonder."

Perhaps in place of the reduced speed to temper came an increased investment in resilience. Rugby is littered with stories of players struggling through dark days when injury has removed them from the team room and into the rehab zone. A year after our interview in Limerick, O'Connell developed a groin issue which turned into an infection in his pubic symphysis. How that happened is something he might document in his book.

It cost him 10 months, made worse by the uncertainty of where he was going with it, and if he would ever get there. So it was a relief that he made it to the World Cup in 2011, never mind following it up last autumn. You can only imagine what he was like to live with in that period. O'Connell may be blessed with the common touch but his intensity extends beyond the rugby field. His agent of 14 years, John Baker, recalls their first sit-down in Castletroy.

"From that very first meeting it was clear you had to think hard when he asked you a question," Baker says. "There was no room for bluffing. I'm not sure he knew back then that he had that effect on people."

We suspect he did. Moreover that he traded on it. It would stand to O'Connell when he was captaining the Lions in difficult circumstances in South Africa in 2009. He was getting a lot of flak in the UK media especially because his form wasn't in the wrecking-ball class, which is what you need down there. But that was never his game. O'Connell was always a willing carrier rather than a destructive one.

What set him apart was the strength of that will, and its effect on those he played with and against. It's a pity we won't see how that would have panned out in the talent Mecca that is Toulon, where superheroes are queuing to get in the door. Be grateful he got as far as he did.

* * * * *

In the end, the compromise is a reversion to the sports top with the hood up. When the green light comes, he springs out of the chair, free at last. As he leaves, the white shirt is left lying on the table, but he accepts the brown paper bag with prop number two folded neatly inside.

And as he shuffles off up Henry Street, you wonder how many people would have believed that Paul O'Connell was walking home with a Superman T-shirt under his arm.

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