Saturday 24 March 2018

No short cuts taken on O'Connell's journey to legend status

'O’Connell would be too humble to describe himself as a winner, and too sensitive to describe the vanquished as losers'. Photo: Sportsfile
'O’Connell would be too humble to describe himself as a winner, and too sensitive to describe the vanquished as losers'. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

If there's a sentence that's overused, it's the one that says 'the word legend is overused, but in this case we can safely say that the man here before us . . .' etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

And at this point you insert the name of the person who is the exception, the one to whom the word legend truly and validly applies.

And because you have proved your fine discernment in such matters, and suitably reassured your audience that you don't hand out this supreme accolade willy-nilly to every dog of the road, then the person in question is, without fear of contradiction, a legend.

Having been all but drowned in bouquets and garlands last week, Paul O'Connell might therefore have appreciated the somewhat less misty-eyed tribute from his old mucker, Jerry Flannery.

The former teak-tough Munster and Ireland hooker had played against O'Connell in schools and age-grade rugby back in the day. "When I played him under 16," Flannery told this week's Limerick Leader, "he was useless enough. He was just a tall and skinny red-haired guy! Then I remember seeing the Irish Schools team and seeing Paul O'Connell was on it and I was asking how did this guy make that jump?"

So when they put up the statue to him outside of Thomond Park or indeed Tom Clifford Park (aka 'The Killing Fields'), home of his beloved Young Munster RFC, it could be a suitable epithet for the base of said monument: 'Paul O'Connell - Useless Enough'.

As it happens, I saw him out in a nightclub in Limerick two weekends ago with some friends. It was a rare sighting of the great man in such a location. It makes sense now: he must have known then that the game was up. It was over. The hamstring had sheared off the bone against France at the World Cup in October. He'd been rehabbing it for over four hours a day but at some stage realised that the old power and speed wasn't coming back. And at the age of 36, it would never come back.

He sounded typically rational and sanguine when discussing it last week. The decision had been taken out of his hands so there wasn't much he could do about it. If you cannot function as you could before, then really there's no decision to be made at all. "I think you can only be disappointed about things that you can do differently," he said.

If it was within his control, therefore, he'd have done everything to make it right. But this one was beyond his control. And if he couldn't control it, he'd just have to surrender to it.

This was a governing principle of his career: to do everything he could within his control to shape the outcome. And everything actually meant everything, from the basics like personal fitness and nutrition to set-piece technicalities and obscure details right out on the margins of the game. Not because he wanted to be a model professional for its own sake, but to ward off the disappointment of knowing he could've done more, but didn't; could've done another set of reps but instead decided to go for dinner; could've spent another half hour on the laptop studying opposition lineouts but instead decided to call it a night.

It's an obsessive-compulsive trait recognisable in a lot of top sportsmen; an inner drive often described as perfectionism but which might in fact be a form of guilt. It runs deeper than the glib assertion that it is merely 'a winner's mentality'. O'Connell for one would be too humble to describe himself as a winner, and too sensitive to describe the vanquished as losers.

It comes back to personal conscience. His famously unstinting dedication to self-improvement was perhaps more than anything the result of a highly active conscience. He could not in conscience ever contemplate taking a short cut.

And of course he brought this philosophy out of the gym, and off the training ground, onto the field of play - with a bit of added mania for extra impact. O'Connell is a reader of books and a thoughtful man. But there was the primal side to him too. On match days the animal emerged. He would play with untrammelled abandon. He was a study in absolute immersion. He was lost to the world during those 80 minutes. The sports photographers could compile a book out of the expressions on his face, usually contorted into a portrait of extreme stress from the gargantuan physical struggle in which he was engaged.

And yet in the fog of war he could hold onto his marbles. The brain still functioned while the heart was in overdrive. He could read situations and make clear decisions. He managed simultaneously to be both rational and atavistic.

And when it was over he would resume his civilian life without any fanfare or need for separation from the common herd. His alter ego as hero of the people was worn lightly and well hidden. Personally, I don't believe I've met a sportsman of his calibre who has remained so naturally grounded, approachable and courteous. The fella, quite simply, is a gent.

So, for a useless enough rugby player, O'Connell has somehow become a figure of national pride, a symbol of the best that we can be. And, therefore, a legend if ever there was one.

Sunday Indo Sport

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