Monday 26 September 2016

Paul O'Connell's 12 greatest moments as a rugby player

Tom Rooney

Published 09/02/2016 | 14:51

Paul O'Connell represented Munster, the Lions and Ireland with distinction
Paul O'Connell represented Munster, the Lions and Ireland with distinction

Whittling down a selection of moments from one of the most glittering careers of the professional era was never going to be easy but, after careful consideration, we've chosen a fitting greatest hits from the Paul O'Connell back catalogue.

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1) A try scoring debut for Ireland

A navy scrum cap may have obscured that trademark mop of fiery red hair but, even all the way back in February 2002, the eventual impact Paul O’Connell would have on the Irish team was unmistakable.

Packing down in the second row with his Munster compatriot Mick Galwey, the 22-year-old went over for a try to seal his maiden voyage on the international stage with aplomb. That said, he knocked himself unconscious beforehand, so had little recollection of the incident.

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2) Captains Ireland for the first time

This weekend 12 years ago O’Connell led out his country for the first time. In Brian O’Driscoll’s absence, the Munster lock was at the helm as Ireland travelled to Pairs for the Six Nations opener on St Valentine’s Day.

Although Ireland were soundly beaten, O’Connell cut the figure of a captain in waiting, even among stalwarts such as Anthony Foley, Kevin Maggs and John Hayes.

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 3) A first Triple Crown

It may not have started in the most distinguished of circumstances, but after that crushing defeat to Les Blues, Ireland won their subsequent four games in the 2004 Championship. En route to winning a first Triple Crown in 19 years, Eddie O’Sullivan’s charges handed England their first loss at Twickenham since 1999.

The Crown was secured after a handsome 37-16 victory over Scotland at Lansdowne Road.

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4) A Test Lion

O’Connell was one of 11 Irishmen initially selected in Clive Woodward’s bloated Lions group that travelled south on that ill-fated tour to New Zealand.

The Lions were whitewashed 3-0 in the series, but O’Connell was in the engine room with Ben Kay for the opening test.

Unfortunately, he was sin-binned for throwing himself into a ruck as though it were a swimming pool; compounding the fact that captain Brian O’Driscoll had only been carted off minutes earlier. Yet, being admitted into such a select group of players is worthy of note.

He and Munster partner-in-crime Donnacha O’Callaghan were the second rows of choice for the subsequent two tests.

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 5) Munster finally end Heineken Cup hoodoo

So many times before Munster had clawed their close to the summit of European club rugby, but failed to scale that highest peak.

All that heartbreak was at last eradicated on that famous May night at the Millennium Stadium in 2006. O’Connell was pivotal as the southern province defeated then French heavyweights Biarritz by 23-19.

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 6) Successive Triple Crowns in 2006 and 2007

Under Eddie O’Sullivan, Ireland came tantalisingly close to completing the Grand Slam in 2006 and 2007, as losses to France scuppered the dream on both occasions. But dominance over fellow home nations was nothing to sneeze at. The highlight of the campaigns was unquestionably the 43-13 trouncing of England in front of a packed house at Croke Park in 2007.

And on a more personal level, O’Connell’s belligerent speech to the troops prior to the narrow loss to France the same year was a sight to behold. Something about ‘manic aggression and the fear of god.’ In 2006, O’Connell was also shortlisted for the International Rugby Board player of the year.

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7) The skipper as Munster etch their name among the greats of club rugby

Just two years after their exploits against Biarritz, Munster were back in Cardiff seeking to topple another French dynasty. This time it was Guy Noves’ Toulouse. Spurred on by O’Connell and the unerring boot of Ronan O’Gara, the province clinched a second European title in what was arguably the franchise’s greatest moment.

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 8) A 61 year famine comes to an end in 2009

When recollecting on his glittering career, O’Connell is likely to include the Millennium Stadium as one of its happier hunting grounds. In Declan Kidney’s first Championship in charge, Ireland had dispatched of all comers before arriving in Cardiff with Warren Gatlands’ Wales standing between them and immortality.

With Lions places, an outside chance of taking the title for Wales and pride at stake, it was always going to be a mammoth task, and so it proved. But Ireland prevailed, and held on dearly following O’Gara’s sumptuous drop goal.

O’Connell was one of six Munster men in the Irish pack that day and boy, how they dug in.

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9) The Lions’ Captain

Ian McGeechan elected Paul O’Connell to lead the 2009 British and Lions to South Africa and, despite the tour ending in another test series failure, the great lock carried out his duties with great distinction.

A somewhat chastening loss in the first test in many respects decided the series. However, with everything still on the line, the second instalment proved one of the most physically taxing in the history of the game. Leading from the front, with bodies literally strewn all over the Loftus Versfeld, O’Connell dragged his side to within three points of the then world champions.

They did, however, record a fine win in the final test.

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10) An inspiring return to action for Munster in 2013

An early recovery from back surgery saw O’Connell return to the fray for his province just as the business end of the 2012-13 campaign was getting underway. The pinnacle of which was his man-of-match display in the Heineken Cup quarter final win over Harlequins at the Stoop. Like a man possessed, O’Connell took the fight to the hosts as Munster ran out 19-12 winners.

Despite missing the Six Nations and all but ruling himself out of the tour, O’Connell was selected by Warren Gatland to travel to Australia with the Lions, where they secured just a second series win of the professional era.

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11) Champions in Paris

With so much water since under the bridge, Ireland’s brutal battle with France in 2014 to win the Championship two years ago feels like a lifetime away.

The Joe Schmidt era had mixed beginnings the previous autumn, but Ireland were a different animal come the Six Nations. A tight loss to England at Twickenham scuppered the Grand Slam, but Ireland came to Paris with everything to play for.

In another taught affair, Ireland won by 22-20 following 80 minutes of attrition. O’Connell lofted the Six Nations trophy in tandem with Brian O’Driscoll, to the give the centre a picture perfect swansong on the international stage.

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12) A pivotal try on Super Saturday

If Ireland were to retain the crown in Edinburgh, they needed not just a win but points in abundance against Vern Cotter’s improving Scots. After just four minutes, the captain set the trend by powering over for the game’s first try as Ireland went on to win by 40-10 at Murrayfield.

In his final Six Nations appearance, O’Connell inspired Ireland to back-to-back titles as they became the first nation to do so in 66 years. Irish players and fans were forced to endure the barnburner between England and France before O’Connell once again lifted silverware high into a spring night sky.

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