Rumours of O'Connell's demise were greatly exaggerated
Published 05/01/2012 | 05:00
YOU think back a year and a half, and the doom-mongers were out in force. Rumours have found a natural home online and the internet was throbbing to tales of Paul O'Connell's demise.
The debilitating effects of his groin injury complete with misdiagnoses and false dawns had been stretched out over most of 2010 and there was wild speculation as to whether he would ever return or, if he did, whether he would be the same player as before.
Those doubts have been cast to the wind as, rejuvenated by the extended break, O'Connell grew into 2011 and finished the year restored to his omnipotent best, a key component of Ireland's best World Cup moments and Munster's storming start to the Heineken Cup.
Yesterday's contract announcement -- following on swiftly from his confirmation as stand-in captain for Brian O'Driscoll -- confirms as much and the player, who turned 32 in October, has two years to re-emphasise his ongoing provincial and national importance.
What is this contract worth to O'Connell?
For much of the 2000s, O'Connell, O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara were the big three in terms of international influence and earning potential. O'Connell's last deal was estimated to be around the €400,000 per annum mark but his age and recessionary pressures would have been a factor in these latest negotiations.
However, with long-time second-row partner Donncha O'Callaghan believed to have secured a deal of around €300,000 per annum when he re-signed a little over a year ago, sources suggest O'Connell's deal, factoring in his impressive return to form and fitness, should be upwards of €350,000 per annum.
What has O'Connell been worth to Munster and Ireland?
Rugby cannot be compared to professional soccer in terms of revenue and global appeal but when it comes to salary versus contribution, rugby players can justifiably claim to provide greater value for money -- certainly in terms of physical commitment.
And O'Connell's commitment is legendary, as driven in a pre-season practice match as he is in a Heineken Cup or World Cup knockout match. Over the course of five contracts, it is estimated that O'Connell will have earned close to €3m as a pro rugby player -- a pittance in soccer terms -- and he has been worth every cent.
Is O'Connell as good as he was in the mid-2000s?
Better, according to Munster coach Tony McGahan, who has been working with O'Connell since he joined the province as defence coach in 2005.
"He is playing as well as ever, as is evident in the Heineken Cup," said McGahan. "His carrying and contact areas have improved. His work and desire to improve other aspects of his game are phenomenal. There's certainly evidence he's improving his game.
"This year the way he has played and dragged us through the first four games was excellent. He sets an example to younger players. He's also challenging himself to improve. He challenges coaches, fitness staff and medical staff. We're fortunate to have someone of his ilk in the squad.
"His gap through injury means he won't take anything for granted. And he's thrown himself into his rugby; he's in a very good place at this time."
He is not as mobile a second row as the up-and-coming breed of Courtney Lawes and Richie Gray and would never have been known for the sleight of hand of a Nathan Hines.
Before his injury, O'Connell had a habit of falling into contact when he took up possession but since his return, his ball-carrying has become considerably more effective, executed with greater frequency, tackle-breaking velocity and capacity to off-load.
Line-outs and restarts remain a major strength and source of study while, as McGahan notes, his work at the breakdown and in defence has also flourished. Nearly 12 years on from his try-scoring debut against Wales, O'Connell is raising the bar again.
Was O'Connell the right choice as captain?
The bold choice would have been to install Rory Best and instruct the Ulster hooker to lead Ireland into the next World Cup. At 29, Best has three years on O'Connell and nearly four on O'Driscoll and showed superb form and leadership at the World Cup. But that appointment could be delayed until the two Lions leaders depart.
For this Six Nations, O'Connell was the obvious choice. While his record as Ireland captain is not the healthiest (three wins from eight), his credentials are unimpeachable and he earned tremendous credit among players and management for his leadership on the 2009 Lions tour.
Where does O'Connell stand in the pantheon of Irish greats?
Next to Willie John, in most people's eyes. Just as Brian O'Driscoll is paired with a great of yesteryear, Mike Gibson in midfield, so is O'Connell regularly partnered by McBride in the second-row when all-time Irish XVs come up for discussion.
Over the course of 82 Tests for his country, the Limerick man has been a consistent rallying figure, earning him numerous man of the match awards along the way as well as superhero status in the eyes of devoted Munster and Ireland supporters.
Is this O'Connell's last contract?
Not necessarily. As he said himself yesterday, O'Connell's body is in "great nick" and revitalised by his time away from rugby and protected by the Irish system, there is nothing to say he could not sign another extension in 2014. Front-five forwards tend to go longer than most and there is precedent, recent and historical, for second-rows playing into their late 30s.
Legendary Ireland second-row and captain, Willie John McBride, played for Ireland at 34, while England and Lions colossus Simon Shaw turned 38 during the World Cup in New Zealand and was one of Martin Johnson's more effective players.
O'Connell's 2011 comeback is also a positive story for O'Driscoll, in the midst of his own extended injury break.