Friday 9 December 2016

Paul O'Connell: 'I don't know if there's something wrong with me but I haven't missed playing'

'I haven't missed playing. I don't know if there is something wrong or whether it will hit me further on down the line'

Published 10/09/2016 | 02:30

Former Irish rugby star Paul O’Connell poses for a picture the launch of the Aldi Play Rugby IRFU initiative in Terenure yesterday. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
Former Irish rugby star Paul O’Connell poses for a picture the launch of the Aldi Play Rugby IRFU initiative in Terenure yesterday. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

No longer is it summer but the living is still surprisingly easy for Paul O'Connell these days.

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Any lasting pain was left behind amidst the crumpled torso that breathed its competitive last in an Ireland jersey at the Millennium Stadium 11 months ago.

More time for his family, more time for his friends, more time for his self; he hasn't needed time to salve any physical and mental wounds. They were easy enough to wash away. After all, he had half a life of service to reflect upon.

And so it hasn't pained him to separate. Well, not too much, anyway.

"I've really enjoyed watching rugby," he says. "I don't know if there is something wrong with me or whether it will hit me further on down the line. I haven't missed playing and I have really enjoyed watching it since finishing.

"I was 35 when I finished. I'd been injured for a while, I'd been battling injuries, trying to get back to where I was since I was younger. So it was different for me, I suppose.

"I have to admit it has been a bit difficult watching Munster at times.

Anguish

"I'm very close to the lads and they had a tough year. But I haven't gone through any of that anguish.

"If guys retire at 28 like Felix Jones had to, or Ian Dowling had to, or Denis Leamy had to, with so much ahead of them, so much left to achieve. . . I'd say if that happened to me, I would have really struggled.

"Anyway, I thought I'd be retired early. I managed to play until I was 35. I was happy with my lot. Happy to move on when I was finished."

Ronan O'Gara, inimitably, tossed out a garland to Munster supporters that a dream coaching ticket may, sooner rather than later, be in the offing. O'Connell won't be rushed, just yet. He sees old team-mates struggling with the burden and caution advises him.

Still, he was fidgety at times last season, particularly as Munster toiled without him - even though he had, in any event, pledged to an ultimately stillborn career at Toulon - and his advisory role with the Munster Academy is a bridgehead to sustained involvement in the game.

"I've been on the rugby treadmill for 15 years. And while I didn't want to get completely off it, I wanted a break from it," he says. "It's a part-time role, it keeps me plugged in to rugby, it challenges me a little bit too.

"I found out a few differences from peer coaching, when I was for so long helping people you play with, as opposed to standing back on a sideline telling people what to do. It's very difficult.

"It's a part-time role and allows me to take a break and do other things."

You sense he didn't envy his mate Anthony Foley last season but he did empathise.

"I'd bump into Axel quite a bit last season," he says. "It's hard when you're on the outside. If you're not there day to day involved in the intimate detail, it's very hard to put a finger on what's going to make a difference.

"Definitely, there are times I would have loved to have gone in and helped out. But you have to let people get on with it and take their own journey. People forget Axel had been there before.

"When Munster transformed themselves into a winning outfit at the turn of the century, they had come from losing to Toulouse by 60 points. Sometimes you have to go through it and figure it out.

"I've been in tough situations as well and the worst thing you can get is loads of people giving you advice from the outside."

Still, his status demands insight; he was never going to make another World Cup but his former Ireland coach, Joe Schmidt, may well do and the prospect enthuses him.

"It's exciting and Ireland are in a great position," he says in the wake of Ireland's narrow defeat in South Africa and the imminent contract extension dangling before Schmidt.

"You look at the young players who are coming through in the provinces and shone on that summer tour. It's incredible. There are some amazing players.

"Look at Stuart Olding, he's already come through but his injuries haven't given him the opportunity to show what he can be yet.

"The coaching staff are brilliant. Hopefully Joe stays on. It's really important that he stays on because he is creating great players.

"He is making players become better but he is also making coaches become better as well, which is hugely important. You just need to look at the quality of the players overall, and Ireland do have that quality now."

The Lions may seem, as it did to Schmidt, a less palatable prospect; O'Connell was on the 2005 tour as the Land of the Long White Cloud cast dark shadows wherever they went; few expect that 3-0 series defeat to be improved next summer.

"The Lions will have the strongest squad in an awful long time and that will give them a great chance," O'Connell adds.

"What doesn't give them a great chance is going down at the end of a very long season. People are saying there are too many fixtures but you need those fixtures to become a team.

"Warren Gatland is suited to the Lions because the Welsh game-plan from previous tours is really easy to pick up, it's really easy to learn. You can spend three days on the training paddock and more or less know the game-plan inside out.

"It's a simple system and I think that suits the Lions. Because it's the end of the season, you can't spend that long on the pitch, you don't have a pile of warm-up matches to learn a complex game-plan.

"They have a chance but it's an outside chance. New Zealand to me just seem to be getting better and better and pulling away from the world. They have coaches who are the best in the world at what they do and the best Academy players."

Munster want to rival them and O'Connell wants to help; he pointed his car south from Dublin today but Thomond Park, not the Pro12, will be his main focus as Munster Schools take on Ulster.

Would that he could find another like him.

Paul O'Connell was speaking at the launch of Aldi's sponsorship of the IRFU's Play Rugby programme. For more details see www.aldi.ie/playrugby

Irish Independent

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