Paul O'Connell - He put the gritty in integrity
I remember going to Limerick to interview Paul O'Connell several years ago. We were due to meet at ten o'clock and at 20 to ten he rang me on the mobile. "I'm very sorry about this," he said, "but I'm going to be ten minutes late."
In my experience of sportsmen, ten minutes lateness for an interview was neither here nor there so I was impressed that he'd taken the trouble. And, as it turned out, he wasn't late at all.
For some reason that incident always comes back to me when people ask me which sportsman I was most impressed by when meeting them personally. The phone call seemed a quintessential O'Connell gesture. His career has been all about integrity and doing the right thing. He has been the consummate professional.
He has also probably taken more punishment in the performance of his trade than any Irish sportsman of recent times. Think of O'Connell and the image that comes to mind is of the second-row demanding the ball and then making hard yards while being hit very hard. If the prevailing reaction on seeing Brian O'Driscoll do his thing was to "ooh and aah" at the man's pace and elusiveness, the tendency when watching O'Connell was to wince at what he put himself through.
Here's a thought experiment. Picture O'Connell in action. What jersey is he wearing? I've a hunch it's the Munster one because for all his heroics in the green jersey there was something about the big man which seems forever Munster. And that's why it's almost impossible to imagine that we've seen the last of him in the colours of his home province and that, in fact, he might well end up returning to Thomond Park in a Toulon jersey.
Yet, while it's never encouraging to see Irish rugby players snapped up by big foreign clubs, there is something different about this case. The words, "X owes his team nothing," get bandied about quite a bit. I've never been that happy about that idea, as long as you can still play you surely owe the team everything you have left. But perhaps Paul O'Connell is the closest example we have of a player who left so much on the pitch for his team that it would be arrant begrudgery to ask him for more at this stage of the career.
That's why I think the IRFU did the right and decent thing by releasing him early from his contract so he can join Toulon. For one thing it will probably extend his career. Toulon's big squad and big payroll means they are a favourite destination for players eager to finish off their career with a financial flourish. Two years there will put O'Connell in a much more financially comfortable position than he would have been in had he stayed with Munster. He'll also be playing in a dominant team who can afford to rest him from time to time whereas with Munster he'd have been trying to carry a young team on his back. The move makes perfect sense.
That's not to say that there isn't a certain sadness involved. For all the great players who contributed to Munster's wonderful Heineken Cup campaigns - Foley, Stringer, Quinlan, O'Callaghan etc - the team seemed to be epitomised by O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara. Now that they're both gone the curtain does seem to have finally been brought down on the glorious era which brought European titles in 2006 and 2008 and a host of inspirational and often unlikely victories. That O'Connell's last game was the thumping Pro12 final defeat by the Glasgow Warriors showed how diminished Munster are from their heyday and what a struggle it would have been had he opted to put his final two years in at home.
And that Toulon is his destination shows how the balance of power has changed since Munster were the most feared team in Europe. The French side have just completed a record-breaking hat-trick of Heineken Cup wins by adopting the soccer-style model of spending big on top-class imports. It may be that this is the model of the game which reigns in the future and that the financial clout of the French and English clubs sees them pull away from the opposition. And this could mean that we will never again see a largely home-grown side like Munster lift the top prize in Europe. If this really is the future, it's a disheartening one.
Because there really was very little in Irish sport to match those great Munster campaigns, in particular on the big days in Thomond Park when the organic link between the team and the spectators inspired both to new heights. O'Connell seemed like the logical development of several decades of gritty Munster forward play, the heir to Tom Clifford, Moss Keane, Brendan Foley and other locks who never showed any great interest in taking prisoners. Yet he combined the ruggedness, which he says he acquired largely through playing senior club rugby in Limerick while still a schoolboy, with the extraordinary athleticism required by the 21st-century game.
He also had a refreshing devilment about him; witness the story of him driving England hooker Steve Thompson to distraction by shouting 'throw it to me Steve, you can't miss me,' as well as a ruthlessness which saw him get into hot water on a couple of occasions. The last of those was the wild boot which knocked out David Kearney. At the time it was said that Irish coach apparent Joe Schmidt shouldn't have criticised O'Connell because it might adversely affect their relationship. But Schmidt probably knew there was never any risk of that. Paul O'Connell was simply too remorselessly focused on doing his best for Ireland to let anything extraneous get in the way.
You can only wish him well and you can also only hope that the draws are kind and spare the Munster fans from having to see their one-time hero lining out against them. And the big hope will be that when he does arrive in Toulon it will be as the captain of the reigning world champions. His final provincial game might have been a damp squib but wouldn't it be something if his final international game came on October 31 at Twickenham?
For a decade and a half nobody has exemplified the phrase, "putting his body on the line," like Paul O'Connell. Bon voyage.
Careful now - this could end in tiers
The current moral panic about the necessity for a two-tier All-Ireland football championship is all well and good. But it does come up against what we might call the Derry-Longford problem.
Three times in the last ten years, most recently last year, Longford have beaten Derry in the qualifiers. This would seem to suggest that Longford are incontrovertibly a better football team than Derry. Yet since their 27-point trouncing by Dublin last Sunday, Longford have become Exhibit A in the case for a two-tier championship, a small county who have no business in the same competition as the Dubs.
It's hard for anyone who witnessed last Sunday's massacre to maintain that Longford belonged on the same pitch as Dublin. Yet few people would suggest that Derry wouldn't belong in the top tier of a two-tier All-Ireland. They were league finalists last year and played in Division 1 this term. But they are, going by the only evidence which really counts, a weaker team than Longford.
And this is the problem about talk of a two-tier championship, it's hard to name the teams who would belong in the top tier. Laois, for example, were knocked out last year by Tipperary while Kildare only edged past Clare by a point. And even Cork, who would seem to be an automatic choice for tier one, only managed a narrow victory against Tipperary in last year's Munster semi-final.
The problem is that there are, at the most, six teams who are way ahead of the majority of counties and perhaps six who are a long way behind. In between stands a host of teams who are much of a muchness.
Longford, after all, aren't the first team to ship a hockeying from the Dubs. Both Kildare and Meath suffered 16-point reversals against Jim Gavin's team in last year's Leinster Championship before Dublin had 17 points to spare over Monaghan in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The previous year saw 16-point defeats for Kildare and Westmeath at Dublin's hands.
It's worth recalling the reaction to those one-sided matches. The papers were full of predictions that Dublin's awesome underage strength, enormous demographic and financial resources meant that we'd entered a new era of inevitable metropolitan domination.
There was much talk about the necessity to split Dublin into different parts and much fulminating about the underage dominance of a county which had actually won just one All-Ireland minor title in the last 30 years. And then along came Donegal to prove that talk of a four- or five-in-a-row for Dublin was a tad premature.
So perhaps we should all take a deep breath and hold off on talk of that two-tier championship. Let's not forget that in 2008 Dublin beat Wexford by 23 points in the Leinster final but the Slaneysiders recovered to defeat Ulster champions Armagh and make the All-Ireland semi-final where they gave eventual champions Tyrone bags of it.
The question perhaps is why Dublin have such a knack of dishing out hammerings. One reason is that the team's all-out attacking approach means that once they get on top they will tend to rack up a large total. And the county's strength in depth, with so many players competing for a starting berth, means that there is little incentive for the forwards to ease up. Kerry, who are as every bit as strong as Dublin, don't tend to pile it on in the same manner.
Yet results like last Sunday's don't mean that there's any need to drastically restructure the championship. What should be looked at is the Leinster Council's decision to grant Dublin home advantage in perpetuity.
A two-tier championship doesn't make any sense because there really aren't two tiers in inter-county football. Where do Laois belong for example? Or Tipperary? Or Roscommon? And until we can answer that question there's no point in over-reacting.
Save your outrage for real offenders
Even after the season has ended, it seems young professional footballers still have a knack of getting themselves into trouble. The latest bad boy is Jack Wilshere, who's facing an English FA misconduct enquiry for being caught singing, "What do we think of Tottenham? Shit. What do we think of shit? Tottenham", as the Gunners celebrated their FA Cup final victory over Aston Villa.
As repartee goes, it's hardly in the Wildean class and chances are it will cost the 23-year-old a few bob by the time the FA have finished with him. Yet I can't help feeling that the whole thing is just another one of those storms in a teacup which the Premier League seems to specialise in. Remember the John Terry-Wayne Bridge contretemps? Or the great laughing gas panic? One suspects there might well have been drink involved in Wilshere's case as the Arsenal players let off steam with their fans at the end of a long season. The man is 23 and making a perhaps ill-judged attempt to bond with supporters. It shouldn't make him a pariah. For one thing, I'm sure he's had worse things shouted at him from the terraces.
Then again, maybe I simply lack the moral fibre necessary to see why this is such a serious offence. Or perhaps in a week when we've seen how rotten to the core the administration of football is, I just think the moral outrage should be saved for the really serious offences out there, the ones which have been nodded at by the very people who'll sit in judgement on Jack Wilshere. Let him without sin . . .
Sunday Indo Sport