Saturday 24 March 2018

O'Connell puts his obsessive drive on the line

Memoir: The Battle, Paul O'Connell with Alan English, Penguin Ireland, hdbk, 432 pages, €25

Cutting to the chase: Paul O'Connell's memoir is much more revealing than the humdrum affair of his former teammate, Brian O'Driscoll
Cutting to the chase: Paul O'Connell's memoir is much more revealing than the humdrum affair of his former teammate, Brian O'Driscoll
The Battle by Paul O'Connell with Alan English

HilaryA White

The no-holds-barred approach that served the Munster and Ireland icon's career so well is brought to the pages of his memoir, without demystifying his legendary status.

There were times when you could've strangled Paul O'Connell for his lack of elation after a win. Take Ireland's outwitting of Australia in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Sexton, O'Connell and Ferris had led a demolition of the Southern Hemisphere hotshots, resulting in a welcome quarter-final draw against more familiar foes Wales. When interviewed at full-time, O'Connell's only emotion was a bewildered frown, a shrug and something about the team just playing to its potential.

For those who have tracked the fortunes of the granite-jawed Limerick colossus throughout his career, an inner struggle was always detectable. So would this feverishly anticipated biography be something of an anti-climax? Would it go the way of Brian O'Driscoll's bestselling The Test (2014) and bring nothing new to the table in our understanding of a global sporting icon? Would O'Connell, his management and the publishing houses just look for another humdrum hardback to chuck at dads on Christmas morning?

Former Limerick Leader editor Alan English (who tried his best when he replaced Paul Kimmage as ghostwriter for The Test) approached O'Connell back in 2009.

Little did either party know that the Munster totem - who by then had two Heineken Cups, a Six Nations Grand Slam and two Lions tours under his belt - would have another six years of active duty at rugby's uppermost tier.

But there is a very simple reason why The Battle has turned out to be an infinitely better book than The Test. 'Bod' is a commercial brand while O'Connell is just a man. And in keeping with his attitude as a player, O'Connell has emptied the tank here.

The earthy but fiercely proud and determined Munster disposition is rife. He's opened his soul to English, the obvious trust between the two perhaps an unexpected symptom of the added years the project kept taking on. What has come out the other side is a psychological profile that is almost shocking at times in what it reveals about the bloody single-mindedness of the competitive gene.

The signs were clear all those years ago growing up in Drombanna where as a boy of eight, O'Connell was training twice a day as a swimmer and telling rivals' mothers, quite matter-of-factly, that their sons were about to lose.

Golf became another obsession to be pored over with brother and sporting foil Marcus (the pair went as far as to build a small course in their back garden).

There was always time for some basketball, football or hurling, too, but it was golf and, more particularly, swimming that consumed him before schoolboy rugby with Ardscoil Rís took hold.

As he began competing at higher levels in both sports, a new companion introduced itself to O'Connell and remained symbiotically attached - fear. Obsessive, sleepless, physical fear, especially in the lead-up to a contest. The levels of severe self-doubt that lingered all the way through his full-time move to rugby (joining Young Munster, his father's club) and right up to his final 39 minutes and 42 seconds of game time in last year's World Cup, this time last year. This, of course, is "the battle" of the title.

Managing these demons, he admits, was not a strong point in his rawer years as the abrasive 6ft 6in lock. However, this former computer engineering student is all about process and systems. O'Connell tweaked his pre-match routines as he went along, finally embracing the new era of sports psychology while also understanding that there had to be room for the motivating thrust of these terrors. The "fear of God", indeed.

Punctuating, self-directed questions are used throughout The Battle to give voice to what, at times, read like full-on anxiety attacks being experienced by one of the greatest players to ever pick up a rugby ball. The insight recalls last year's ­excellent Tony McCoy documentary Being AP, where the peerless jockey admitted that his win rate was a product of an almost pathological fear of losing that only sharpened as age and mounting injury toll forced a conversation about retirement.

Both will be canonised for what they have achieved. But that is the façade. Push past this and witness the torment it took to get there. Incredible as they are, you'd never accuse either man of exactly selling the lifestyle.

While these burdens and stresses are the lexicon of O'Connell's story, the reading of this volume is anything but a battle. English and his charge understand that fans and enthusiasts both home and abroad want key incidents - Lions tours, Munster's peaks and troughs, near-misses against bloody New ­Zealand - and key players discussed.

The recollections are free of hyperbole and are never betrayed by hubris or rose-tinted specs. He is thorough on Munster's undulating fortunes, on the merits of various coaches and their styles (from Declan Kidney's player-led approach to Joe Schmidt's unprecedented detail), and on his own regime and spells on the treatment table (you'll shudder at the compiled list of breaks and tears he clocked up over the 15-odd years).

If at times O'Connell bemoans the "caricature" of him that grew legs with his ubiquity - that of a "psycho guy, over-competitive bordering on insane, every hour of the day" who everyone is afraid to play Monopoly with - our response is "well, yeah".

This, after all, was someone who learned Afrikaans in order to decode the Springboks' line-out calls, or who quit an Open University business degree as he feared an inevitable fixation with perfect grades would distract from rugby.

And getting to know him better via this thorough self-portrait won't demystify that enigma. If anything, it makes it even more remarkable.

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