The ordinary man who did extraordinary things
Published 10/02/2016 | 02:30
When Paul O'Connell was young, his ambitions were as simple and as majestic as that of any child. He wanted to play for Everton. He wanted to hurl for Limerick. He wanted to be win the British Open at St Andrew's. He wanted to swim in the Olympic Games for Ireland.
Most of all, he wanted to be better than the fella he was competing against. Usually, being the youngest of three boys - Justin and Marcus were older - he didn't always achieve that particular goal.
They devised a quasi Tour de France circuit outside the house, a replica of Augusta inside. Upon the roof, they duplicated Wimbledon. Sport infused them all, innocently. It infected O'Connell, incipiently.
His father, Michael, had played for Sunday's Well and Young Munster but the oval-ball game would not disturb Paul for a while yet.
Individual sports would consume him. He once revealed to me his findings after reading Olympian Matthew Syed's book Bounce, which debates whether talent is natural or nurtured.
"I would think it's nurtured. If you believe it's only down to talent, sure a whole load of people may as well throw their hat at it. You have to work at it."
O'Connell would live that credo all his life, from the early morning pool sessions of his childhood to the hours on the golf course as a teen and then, ultimately, a most decorated career on rugby fields throughout the world.
If he had not have been a Lions captain, a two-time Heineken Cup winner and a Grand Slam winner, O'Connell's phenomenal work ethic could just as easily transferred itself to any sporting theatre.
On Monday mornings before school, the 10-year-old would wake his father a few minutes before 6am to begin a week of chloroform-soaked dreams of Olympic glory.
He genuinely believed he could emulate the great Mark Spitz and also genuinely was scared that he might not be able to. "The work ethic comes easy to me because I was used to it from a young age."
He couldn't reach perfection in the pool; when he took up golf, Bob Rotella wasn't available to tell him that this wasn't a game of perfect, either, despite playing off four after only two years.
"I miss being good at it," he told me. Now, resignedly, he admits he will get another chance.
He was but a boy when he took up rugby - he played out-half as an U-12 with Young Munster; at 16, when it became serious, he was still emerging from brother Justin's shadows. Always something to prove. Always something to doubt, too. He would soon become a man.
O'Connell, whose devotion to modesty is no artifice, always says he got lucky at the Irish schools trial.
Life in the AIL trenches with and against fabled names - Gallimh, Claw, Paco, Ray Ryan - hardened him, imbued him with a selflessness of sacrifice and the grit of perseverance.
Ascension was swift; the 2001 Celtic League final propelled him into the Irish sporting conscience.
Then Ireland, a try-scoring debut against Wales but one he would never remember, Scott Quinnell's errant elbow sending him into concussion.
A career of bruising intensity was born. So too a star.
Ireland's golden generation soon collected silverware with O'Connell as the team's heartbeat; we shared column-writing duties on the difficult 2005 Lions 'blackwash' in New Zealand.
He was seriously addicted to self-knowledge, an avaricious reader, a dedicated student.
He was also a messer. A comedian.
It is still widely assumed that it was Donncha O'Callaghan who pulled down 2005 Lions PR Alistair Campbell's tracksuit bottoms to the wild amusement of all; it was, in fact, O'Connell.
He captained the 2009 Lions and, though defeated again, his perseverance was again obvious; he deserved to be fit enough to see out the 2013 series win but fate conspired to thwart him.
He was extraordinary at being everyman; one summer, he rescued a swimmer from rocks in Clare.
"Superman strikes again!" I texted, jokingly deploying his popular nickname.
"It was the best I could do!" he replied. That's all he wanted to do as a professional and as a human being.
He started a family with the wonderfully supportive Emily. I remember calling him at this change of life when, still injured, he was unsure when he might play again.
"Listen, can we put this off for another hour or so. . . Emily's just gone out and I need to look after Paddy."
From there on, he wallowed in every moment and the twilight twin Six Nations titles paid tribute to his joy in seeking to maximise every moment. Adversity revealed character.
He poured every ounce of himself into every task, exhorting others to follow, urging them to be better.
"I've persevered if nothing else," he once said.
Others will beg to differ. All they can say is #thankspaulie.
Paul O'Connell Factfile
• Age: 36
• Height: 6ft 6in
• Weight: 17st 8lb (112kg)
• Place of birth: Limerick
• School: Ardscoil Ris
• Club: Young Munster
• Caps: 174
• Tries: 18
• Debut: August 17, 2001 against Edinburgh in Celtic League
• European debut: September 29, 2001 against Castres
• Honours: 2 Heineken Cups (2006, 2008), 3 Celtic Leagues (2003, 2009, 2011), 1 Celtic Cup (2005)
• Caps: 108
• Tries: 8
• Debut: February 3, 2002 against Wales in the Six Nations
Scored a try on debut.
• Honours: 3 Six Nations Championships (2009, 2014, 2015), 1 Grand Slam (2009), 4 Triple Crowns (2004, 2006, 2007, 2009)
• Caps: 7 (across three different tours)
• Test debut: June 25, 2005 against New Zealand
• Captained the Lions on the 2009 tour of South Africa