Sunday 16 December 2018

Alone he stands: Paul O'Connell on the Munster way

Nobody encapsulates Heineken Cup romance in Munster like Paul O'Connell, who is itching for yet another European odyssey, writes David Kelly

Paul O'Connell
Paul O'Connell

THE Heineken Cup all started for Paul O'Connell when he began to hop over the wall that stood between his school, Ardscoil Ris, and the hallowed Thomond Park turf.

It seems fair to say he grew up with the competition. It seems safe to say that he's been scaling the heights ever since.

Once he watched his heroes through the eager eyes of a rapt teenager. Then thousands of eyes scanned his progress in the Munster jersey as he became a totemic figure of a red army.

"My first memories would be Munster taking the big scalps at home in the mid-1990s, beating Wasps in '96 and Harlequins in '98 especially," he recalls. "It was always a big thing to beat the English then because the national team were struggling.

"Munster weren't all that competitive but we were always good for big performances at home against the English teams. Harlequins was the one that stood out. We should have beaten them by more than seven points and there was a great atmosphere at it.

"Listen, Thomond is a big ground. I don't think there was ever a ladder, you'd just get a leg up and shunt over. One guy mightn't make it, he'd be chased off, another might have a ticket.

"I was training with a Munster underage team at the time. I remember Declan Kidney gave me two tickets but I gave them to my dad. It was more fun hopping the wall and sprinting across the back pitch.

"Peter Clohessy would have been our hero, being from Young Munster. His brother Ger would have coached me for U-20s at the club and province. I played with Des. So I'd always look out for Peter."

Soon he would be packing down behind him on the same team. His Heineken Cup debut arrived in the 2001-02 campaign. Munster's great odyssey had already enveloped its first glorious failure in the 2000 final to Northampton and the gangly, ginger-haired second-rower's debut campaign would embrace another losing final.

"Castres at home, 28-23, Martin Cahill played tight-head," he recalls his debut without hesitation. Mick Galwey (Gallimh) and Mick O'Driscoll were still the nominal first-choice lock partners, though.

"I was only really first-choice from the quarter-final stage. We played with a gale in first-half away to Stade Francais and went 16-6 up. Then Axel (Anthony Foley) didn't see the guy he had his hands on in the ruck also had a ball and he sneaked under his legs for a try.

"So we had to hold on. Axel and Gallimh called the shots when we had the ball and held on to it. It was a real Heineken Cup away day against a big-moneyed side.

"Then Castres on a boiling hot day in Beziers. Axel injured his shoulder and Donncha O'Callaghan came on and played really well at six after struggling there the season before."

Everyone remembers Neil Back's sleight of hand. O'Connell just recalls sensing Leicester's indomitability as they compiled back-to-back European titles.

"I just remember all the little things they were doing in the line-out. They were so cute. They had the bulk of that great English side at the time -- (Ben) Kay, (Martin) Johnson, Back, (Austin) Healey and all those. They were further down the track than we were.

"They were a very talented, experienced team. We were trying to reach that bar but they were ahead of it. Their players had ambitions to win a World Cup. Tactically, and maybe physically, they were ahead of us. It was where we needed to get to."

Munster knew the standard they had to reach. It was a different prospect than dodging the stewards to scale the walls of Thomond Park.

By now it was a romantic odyssey. Agonising defeats to Toulouse and Wasps in semi-finals were classic occasions, the miracle match in Gloucester glued the enterprise with the team's manic support.

Still they remained European bridesmaids.

The more they attempted to reach the promised land, the more it seemed as if the journey itself was the only thing, such was the elusiveness of the destination. Within the dressing-room, though, a sense of destiny still breathed heavily.

"I wasn't there when Keith Wood said we should believe we could win the thing when he came back in 1999. However, that team changed everything so by the time I came in, I expected to win every game.

"That's a massive thing for a young guy to come into the team and expect that. Axel and Gallimh had never had that. It was different for us, though, Munster expected to win now. The whole mindset had been changed, a winning culture had been created.

"It was a romantic odyssey. I loved it, it couldn't have been any better. Hanging around with guys I used to see on TV, whether it was David Wallace, ROG or Alan Quinlan, guys who were big news in the AIL. It was fairytale stuff for me to be part of it because I didn't think I'd break into it so soon."

Now he was there to win.

Saturday, May 20, 2006 would be the day they shattered the glass ceiling, surrendering their grip on the tag as loveable losers, ascending to the once unimaginable peaks of European champions.

"We never really had a side who had world-class backs who could cut teams open at will, even though we had good backs. And we had Ronan O'Gara, who was a fantastic player. But we never really had wingers who could rip a team open.

"Because of that our route to the knock-out stages was always really tough. We tended to lose a game in the pool stages, very often quite badly. We'd get written off, we'd come back, then we'd get injuries. But we keep digging in.

"It was a long journey. We were never the outstanding team. We were never favourites but we always had a chance to win it. It was a disappointing time but we were garnering so much experience and knowledge, whether from those disappointments or with Eddie O'Sullivan and winning Triple Crowns. We were getting the experience that Leicester had.

"When it came to it in 2006, it was around Christmas when we kicked into gear. We played Edinburgh in the league and did really, really well. We had the two games in January against Castres and Sale.

"We really opened up. Barry Murphy came in to link up with Trevor Halstead and a surge of confidence went through the team. We just had belief in ourselves and our captain, even though there was another try that maybe shouldn't have been in that final."

The final successes against Biarritz and Toulouse, two years apart, franked their status as Europe's best team and Ireland's dominant flag-bearers, confirmed on the epic Lansdowne Road day when their supporters painted the ground red and their team trampled over Leinster.

Their rivals would earn revenge at Croke Park in 2009 in another parochial pot-boiler. If it were needed, this confirmed the competition as something that, notwithstanding a hat-trick of Irish Triple Crowns, raised Irish rugby to an unforeseen elevation.

"Both those games were incredible days, incredible atmospheres. I'm sure it was something similar to what Clare and Cork felt recently in terms of an incredible level of hype," he says.

"You've not just got sportswriters writing about it, everyone is writing about it. It's all over TV. They were exciting times and they were brilliant games. For Irish people, they were really exciting times for Irish rugby in general."

And yet when you ask O'Connell to select a personal highlight, it is neither these derby occasions nor indeed the two Millennium Stadium successes that he fingers. Instead, it is a characteristic backs-to-the-wall triumph on French soil that sticks out in his mind from his 68 Heineken Cup appearances, the 37-14 win in 2009 against Perpignan at the imposing Stade Aime-Giral, where they will return this winter.

"Of all the incredible occasions I've been involved in I always think of Perpignan away from home a few years ago. We didn't go on to achieve anything great that season. We were under pressure going out there. Jean De Villiers had been dropped.

"We got a bonus point in such a tough place to play. Wasps were the only team who'd ever got a bonus before. That win always sticks out. There's something unique about those wins away from home against the big English and French sides."

Despite failing to reach the final since 2008, and ceding their incredible streak of quarter-final appearances, last season's win at the home of English champions Harlequins hinted at a renewal in European fortunes.

Then, with O'Connell and O'Gara in the vanguard of an inexperienced side devoid of so many of their battle-hardened warriors, they destroyed the English side at their Stoop fortress to win the quarter-final.

O'Connell is wary of gleaning too much evidence from that singular success, even though they also ran the mighty Clermont close in a semi-final three weeks later.

"It's too early to say. It's hard to know. It has been a tough time. It was always going to be hard to deal with guys naturally coming to retirement age, Quinny, Axel and John Hayes, without getting enforced ones like Ian Dowling, Murphy, Jerry Flannery and Wally.

"There was a chunk of leadership and experience taken out of the team. It's been difficult. Certainly there's been progress but it's hard to know.

"We have to get into those positions like we were against Clermont last season. We have to be able to get into tough positions and then we'll know if we're coming back to where we were."

The new campaign begins in Edinburgh tomorrow; Gloucester and Perpignan offer reminders of past glories and the potential of a brighter future.

"It's going to be a very tough group. It's hard to know with Edinburgh. Away from home against Gloucester is going to be incredibly tough, as will Perpignan. Then you're left looking at your home games and trying to do the best you can there. All the teams' form has been patchy, ourselves recently.

"Before we played Clermont, we'd won two of our previous eight games which was really bad form to be bringing into the game. It's about doing well in the home games."

O'Connell, like the rest of us, can only survey the speechifying and politicking about the competition he loves from a distance. For the Heineken Cup has defined his and the supporters' sense of place.

"It's an incredible competition," he sums up. "It's the interest that it has developed in rugby. You have people interested who never were before, people who go to games who never went, who know stuff about it who never knew anything before.

"There aren't many competitions when you can sit down and have a genuine interest in every single game. Every game has relevance to the outcome of the competition.

"There's something very tribal about it and that's what makes it different to international rugby. Supporters identify with that intensity. I just hope it stays intact in whatever shape or form."

O'Connell, man and boy, has known nothing else. Not only would the absence of a bona fide European competition be unconscionable. Without Munster at its core, it would be unthinkable.

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