O'Connell's long and grinding road
Published 10/01/2013 | 05:00
Paul O'Connell is a man of such imposing physique and presence that you have to believe he could walk in a straight line against the flow on a crowded street.
His positive influence on any team he plays in is beyond dispute and he has the trophies to back it up. He is a Grand Slam winner, twice a Heineken Cup champion, four times a Triple Crown victor. He is pretty much in the 'been there, done that' category of rugby players.
When then world champions South Africa were preparing for the arrival of the Lions in 2009, their talismanic second-row and spiritual leader Victor Matfield singled out the opposition's captain as one to be wary of.
"I think he is an outstanding player," said Matfield at the time. "He is hugely important to them, is their captain and has performed excellently for Ireland. His work at the line-out is especially impressive."
That tour ended in disappointment for the Lions and O'Connell but his standing within the game was undiminished, with the players from Wales, in particular, lavishing praise on his leadership, influence and attitude.
However, injuries have taken their toll on his career. He only played three games in the 2008 Six Nations, missed all of Munster's Heineken Cup pool games that year and has also had to sit out large parts of subsequent seasons with groin, ankle and knee injuries of varying degrees of seriousness, including missing large chunks of Munster's Heineken Cup pool campaign in 2010.
This latest injury is a recurring one. He had surgery to correct a bulging disc in 2002 and suffered a recurrence six years later. That time he managed the injury without the need for surgery, which is why he didn't immediately opt for an operation this time around.
"With a back injury the last thing you want is to go for surgery, you try to manage it without the need for an operation, which is what I did in 2008," said O'Connell.
"That also seemed to be working initially and I was able to play against Racing Metro and Edinburgh in the first two Heineken Cup games. But the symptoms plateaued and there was very little improvement in the weeks before Christmas. After consultation then with the IRFU medical staff and the surgeon, the next logical step was to have the operation.
"What is positive is that early on, the surgeon said that it wasn't as big an issue as it was back in 2002 or even 2008, even though it is still surgery on my back. And the medical staff are really positive about how the operation went and how the recovery has started."
O'Connell insists that even during his most frustrating days he never contemplated retiring from the game, and while he admits it might be too ambitious to believe he will be a contender for the Lions tour to Australia, he does hope to go on tour during the summer.
"I am looking at being back playing with Munster at some point in April," he said. "I imagine the Lions squad will be selected largely on players' form in the Six Nations, so that won't leave me with much of a chance. There is an Ireland tour during the summer too, though."
O'Connell cut an imposing and confident figure in his Munster tracksuit yesterday and was clearly at peace with himself, now that he has a specific target to aim for and is confident that he will be able to resume his career.
"When you have a back injury you do have doubts, but even when the surgeon saw it three months ago he was of the opinion that it wasn't a big deal at all.
"There was never a stage where I thought I wouldn't be able to get back playing. An MRI scan showed it wasn't that bad an injury and the symptoms weren't that bad either. It was only when I played and trained that I had any symptoms. Day to day I hardly even noticed it."
O'Connell understandably glossed over what must have been a particularly dark period during the early days of the injury and instead emphasised the upswing he experienced once there were some positive developments.
"From the time I decided to get the operation done I felt great. Probably the two weeks leading up to that decision were the most difficult because I was missing all the big games. I missed the big inter-provincial games over Christmas, the Heineken Cup games and even the international against Argentina.
"It's probably okay to do that when you have an injury that's actually getting better and you can see light at the end of the tunnel. Those last two weeks before we reached that point were tough. But once we decided to have the operation I felt okay."
It is a source of confidence to O'Connell that he has experience of recovering from this type of injury, and he also takes assurance from Rob Kearney's recuperation from back surgery.
"Rob had something similar done recently," he said. "He got back and played well for Leinster the other night. I had good success myself 10 years ago. It's not ideal to have the same surgery twice but this time around it was a much smaller operation."
O'Connell won't be lacking in motivation during his rehabilitation period, which is set to be between 12 and 16 weeks. He admits that it is unlikely he will play any part in Ireland's Six Nations campaign but is hopeful he will have a Heineken Cup quarter-final with Munster to aim for.
"We all want to play in the big games and there are no bigger games in April than the Heineken Cup. It would be fantastic if the boys are still in it," he said. "The boys are really disappointed they let their standards drop so much at the weekend (a 17-6 Pro12 home defeat against Cardiff) and I'd be confident of a big performance at the weekend."
O'Connell will begin the process of rehabilitation almost immediately. He held initial discussions with his physiotherapist this week and is very upbeat about restarting his career in the coming weeks and months.
"It's funny, once a decision is made to do it, you've light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "The physio was in my house last night and we were planning the weeks ahead and planning a route back to playing. It gives you a good buzz and straight away you feel better.
"I have something to aim for now, which is hugely positive."