Saturday 25 January 2020

Alan Quinlan: The Paul O'Connell I know - The emotional, lovable leader with a crazed desire to win

There are two sides to legend - the intense competitor who hates losing and the cheeky chappy who is game for a laugh

Paul O’Connell bumps into former Chelsea and AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko in Hazeltine on Tuesday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Paul O’Connell bumps into former Chelsea and AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko in Hazeltine on Tuesday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Rugby is a sport that will always produce its fair share of great players, inspirational leaders and passionate talkers - but only a select few possess all three of those gifts. And Paul O'Connell is one of them.

Why else would Darren Clarke ask him to enter his team room in Ryder Cup week and deliver the traditional pre-tournament pep talk? Two years ago, it was Alex Ferguson who was asked to carry out that particular role.

But this time Clarke opted for O'Connell, which would be understandable if the European team was made up entirely of French, Irish or British-born players but which could be seen as a bit of a risk given the range of nationalities within Clarke's 12-man travelling party.

For let's be blunt here. It's highly unlikely that Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Martin Kaymer or Thomas Pieters would have known a huge amount about Paul before Tuesday's speech. How many Swedes, Spaniards, Germans or Belgians would have?

Paul O'Connell. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Paul O'Connell. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Yet, from what Clarke said publicly, you could have heard a pin drop in that room. And that doesn't surprise me.

I know what he's like. We nicknamed him 'Psycho' because he always had this crazed desire to win. One time, on an away trip, we were playing a game of Cluedo, having a laugh and then Paul arrived down. "F**k me, that's the end of the fun," I said jokingly, knowing full well that he wouldn't just want to play with us, but to beat us.

He's just that sort of bloke, a real competitive animal who would have looked at Clarke's invite in two ways. Firstly, with surprise, because he is by nature, a modest man. And then, he'd have said to himself, 'Right, this is a mini-war I'm going into and I'm going to do everything in my power to make this the best speech I can'.

So his preparation would have been intense. As would his delivery. I've been with him in dressing rooms, listening to his manic aggression, his roars, his questions. And I have also been there when he has delivered messages in a calm and controlled manner, using a gentler, quiet tone as well. The key to everything he says is to get inside the players' heads so when he addressed McIlroy, Garcia and all the guys, there would have been an emphasis on honesty, desire and commitment. 'What is it you want from this week?' he would have asked them. 'What are you going to deliver? What will be your contribution be if you are not selected early on? Can you still be a team player?'

He'll have poked fun at himself, too. And then - afterwards - he may even have gently slagged some of the players in the room. They'll have been captivated by his words, no doubt.

We all were when we were in his company - which is why it is so hard to believe that my first impressions of Paul O'Connell were of this gangly, big lump of a lad, who had mad red hair, and who was dressed in a scruffy sweater and a pair of jeans. A while previously he'd climbed over the wall at Thomond Park to watch our Heineken Cup game against Saracens and when he told us that story, we slagged him for being such a cheapskate.

Former Ireland captain Paul O'Connell
Former Ireland captain Paul O'Connell

And the mad thing is that this super-confident fella who Clarke selected to be his keynote speaker in Ryder Cup week had a streak of insecurity about himself back then.

He wasn't the most naturally skilful player and would beat himself up if he made a mistake. Yet even then, as he felt his way into the squad, he was thirsty for knowledge and in those early months of his professional career, when he nursed a bad back and wondered if he would ever get a chance to play again, he'd go out of his way to pick your brains.

That's Paul. As a bloke, he's mad for information and advice and he couldn't absorb enough of it, about the way we prepared, the way we improved our mental strength, the way we dealt with setbacks. Constantly, he questioned himself and reviewed his own game.

Once, after a Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Toulouse, he really went hard on himself over the number of penalties he had conceded in that game.

Yet with Paul there was a difference between self-pity and self-assessment. He didn't want others to feel sorry for him because he never felt sorry for himself. He wanted to be the best he could and so throughout his career, he worked on eliminating the errors from his game and learning from his mistakes.

Learning from others was what set him aside. If he felt his handling skills weren't up to scratch, he'd head down to train with the best passers in the squad. If he felt he wasn't fast enough, he'd surround himself with the speedsters. Then, when training ended, he'd seek out the nutritionist and interrogate him or her about diet. No one got away without being quizzed. The physios and sports scientists were battered with questions. On his downtime, he'd find any autobiography he could put his hands on and take inspiration by high achievers and hard work. The day Ireland won the Grand Slam? Paul read Richard Branson's book that afternoon.

And that is why I can't wait to see what he has written because when I think back on our time together, I remain fascinated by the transformation from the shy, awkward redhead who was one step away from asking the rest of the Munster team for autographs, to being Clarke's go-to guy at the 41st Ryder Cup in Hazeltine.

That was partly why I phoned Alan English, the guy he is working on his book with, earlier this week and asked him, jokingly, how he was coping with 'that lunatic'. And Alan just laughed and I knew by then that he'd encountered the O'Connell intensity.

With professional rugby players - and I'm sure sportspeople in general - you get two different people within one: the competitor on the park and then the fella you know off it.

Ronan O’Gara congratulates Paul O’Connell after Ireland’s 2014 Six Nations triumph. Photo: Sportsfile
Ronan O’Gara congratulates Paul O’Connell after Ireland’s 2014 Six Nations triumph. Photo: Sportsfile

I like both aspects of the Paul O'Connell that I know and as the years passed and we got to know one another better, I found him to be the funniest, most light-hearted guy on a night out you could wish to know.

I'll never forget the excited, big smiley head on him when we'd gather at the start of a big night out. He just loved being around the lads, switching off from the pressure of being in professional rugby, and it didn't take long before his sarcastic slagging would begin.

And that was when the two different people would come out in all of us. The intense individual I knew as an athlete turned into a big baby with a few drinks on him.

You knew he had a few on board when he'd come across to you at the end of the evening, grab you in a bearhug and tell you that he loved you. And then he would get all emotional with all of us. "I'd die for you, Quinny, you know that, don't you," he'd say. The other lads heard the same thing. It was the only time the macho mask slipped and we felt free to show our vulnerabilities about being dropped or getting injured. Otherwise we rarely showed any weaknesses to one another.

As the years passed and he turned into this incredibly driven player, his confidence, his skill levels, his mental resilience, his power to lead, all improved. He earned the nickname Psycho because you have to be half-mad to stay at the top for as long as he did.

And yet the man I know now has calmed since he retired (thankfully) and can be a funny, cheeky b**lix when we hang out together.

"Look at him there Paul," I said about Paddy, his son, who was playing with my young fella, AJ, a while ago in his back garden. "He's a chip off the old block."

By now AJ was taking a break after running around. Paul looked at him sitting on his garden bench and, with a nudge, said: "He's just like you, Quinny, isn't he? Sitting down on a bench ... where his da spent most of his career."

The psycho with a smile on his face.

Irish Independent

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