Irish legends implore O'Connell to stay beyond World Cup
Veteran Irish lock has hinted at retirement but former team-mates insist Munster man has more to offer
Shane Byrne can still remember the first time he clocked the emergence of an Irish rugby legend, because the emerging Irish legend tried to clock him.
Paul O'Connell - "this skinny young lad with bushy red hair!" - was in Leinster's back-yard for the 2001 Celtic League final.
More than 30,000 fans turned up to watch the incipient advent of an enduring Irish rivalry. They also witnessed the birth of a genuine superstar.
His impression on former Ireland and Lions hooker Byrne was almost literally seismic too.
"I remember there was a maul," Byrne recalls. "And we burst out through the maul but then Paulie took a bit of disagreement to it.
"I remember him taking a swing at me and me thinking 'you cheeky git!'. We got on with the game because this guy hadn't come on my radar.
"But I was actually playing when he won his first cap against Wales, the day he got dinged. You knew at that stage that this guy was the real deal.
"Mal O'Kelly had been there for a long time and I remember us doing lineout sessions when the young lad Paulie came in.
"You could see his understanding of everything that we were doing was so fast and he was a perfectionist. He really, really wanted to take everything from where it was and push on through and be part of it, becoming just better."
O'Kelly, himself selected as a Lion with Byrne and O'Connell in 2005, also remembers 2001 as the year of his first interaction with the Limerick colossus.
"I first recall an AIL game," he says. "He was up and coming, I was having a bit of a fun with him. The tables turned pretty quickly. He has always been a great leader.
"By the second cap, he was certainly commanding the room vocally.
"I remember France away, a really good warm atmosphere. It was Paul's first Six Nations, most guys usually keep their head down. But he was all over it, he was like a mini-Mick Galwey. He was certainly struck from the same stone.
"When it came to him talking, we didn't resent it, not a second row, not a Paul O'Connell.
"Maybe if you're a chirpy winger who talks sh*t. Second-rows only talk when they need to talk so it's different."
O'Connell has recently declared that he may not fulfil his IRFU contract and, instead, retire following this year's World Cup; both former team-mates are deeply convinced that this could be the wrong call.
"He's driven himself so hard and for so long, I can't imagine him just stopping, just saying 'ah well, I'm not going to continue on'," reasons Byrne.
"But it comes to us all, and there's people talking about his ability and everything and the games aren't going as well.
"The Saracens game wasn't exactly a cracking one for him, but his own standards, his own drive is so much that he'll be back. I expect him still to be an absolute stalwart for the Six Nations.
"And the World Cup is no doubt. I'd love to see him keep going. I'd love to see him just see his contract out. There's your deadline. Just go finish the contract out.
"Unless there's something that he knows that we don't know. But if not, you'd hate to see him just saying 'I'm just not doing it anymore'. Because I can't imagine that the guy's psyche and the drive that he's had that long would just stop there."
"Paul should keep going until he really feels he's done. He says he's carrying a lot and struggles to train like he used to, but that happens when you're going into the latter stages of your rugby career.
"You still have a lot to offer on the pitch, you know? You're offering your brain. Victor Matfield has hardly done a snatch or a clean or a back-squat in a long time.
"But that doesn't mean that he's not useful out on the park. I would have thought he still has plenty to contribute.
"To be fair to him, when you're 35, you're not 28 or 27 any more. You're not as athletic as you were.
"But he seems to be very athletic. He's very lean, obviously, and still at optimum weight and they're trucking him about.
"But he has his own issues. He's had a lot of injuries. But I'd say he feels pretty good.
"Certainly I did when I was 35. I felt pretty good. And he's played a lot of games and seems to be getting through them and not picking up knocks.
"He just needs to maybe say, 'okay, well I'm not going to be the best trainer in the world any more, but I'll look after myself and I'll get plenty more years'.
"It's up to whether or not he has the energy in the brain to do it and the mindset to continue. He's always been professional in everything he does."
Shane Byrne and Malcolm O'Kelly will feature in the Irish Legends v England Stuart Mangan trophy match in Donnybrook on February 28, a benefit for the IRFU Charitable Trust.