Comment: Paul O'Connell leaves the game as a man of the people, for the people
In one way, it is fitting that Paul O’Connell was stretchered from the field of battle in his last appearance. How else could you make him leave?
At least, the final memories of him will be in the green of his country and, in club terms, in the red of his province, not that of a club in the south of France.
Or is that trying to twist something positive out of something so cruel?
The Ireland legend never met an opponent he gave way to.
Ultimately, it was his own body that let him know the day has come to say goodbye.
Once and forever.
“Since sustaining the injury at the World Cup I have been fully focused on returning to fitness and starting an exciting new chapter for both myself and my family in Toulon.
“Unfortunately, this will no longer be possible,” he issued in an IRFU statement this morning.
The hamstring torn away from the bone at the World Cup has now torn O’Connell away from his contract at Toulon.
“It is with deep regret that I have decided to retire from professional rugby following medical advice,” he said.
The legendary lock played for Ireland 108 times, wearing the armband on 28 occasions.
The longevity of his career would not be the same without the return of silverware that means he leaves with few regrets, winning three Six Nations crowns (2009, 2014 & 2015), two of them as captain.
The pride of place will go to the Grand Slam (2009) ahead of the four Triple Crowns (2004, 2006, 2007 & 2009).
There were also the four unfullfiling visits to the World Cups of 2003 2007, 2011 and 2015 he made where the coveted quarter-finals were never breached.
This all came on top of the two Heineken Cups with his beloved Munster in 2006 and 2008, the romantic story of which formed the growth of the competition in the hearts of Irish people, all before finally leaving the game as a one club man seven years later.
“I have been blessed to be a professional rugby player for over 14 years and to be part of Munster and Ireland teams that have experienced success,” he continued.
“I have played with some of the best players to ever line out in the red of Munster and the green of Ireland and have had the privilege of captaining my country.”
For the moment, O’Connell will rue the fact that he will not be able to deliver on his promise to Toulon in what would have been an interesting and probably winning conclusion to his career.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank all at Rugby Club Toulonnais for their understanding and support over the past few months,” he said.
The perspective of distance and time will allow all wounds to heal.
The journey has been long and illustrious.
It came from humble beginnings, nursed in the the old school values of Young Munster, fostered at school in Ard Scoil Ris, lifted by Munster, exalted on the international test stage for Ireland and for the British & Irish Lions on three tours in 2005, 2009 and 2013.
O’Connell captained The Lions to South Africa to a thrilling, ultimately losing series in 2009.
He was the captain in all but name when his body broke down to deny him that direct involvement in the final test of the 2-1 win over Australia.
“I would like to thank those at Young Munster RFC, Munster Rugby, the IRFU and Lions Rugby who have supported me over the course of my playing career.”
The shelter of family and friends has always been a source of strength during the hard times.
“Special thanks must go to my wife Emily for her unwavering support through the good and the bad and to my parents Michael and Shelagh.”
Despite the game face image of a ‘psycho,’ his nickname, O’Connell was able to switch off the mindset of a warrior when away from the game.
There was a generosity of spirit, a natural way with people that made him one of those men you would follow blindly down a dark alley anywhere in the world, one of those special men every other man wanted to get to know - preferably over a pint.
“Lastly, I would like to thank everyone who has supported the teams I have been a part of.”
“The support you have shown me is humbling and an immense source of pride for both myself and my family.”
He leaves the game as a man of the people, for the people.