Sunday 16 June 2019

Standing in Paul O'Connell's way never an option for the IRFU

The IRFU decided they wouldn’t stand in the way of Paul O'Connell, a man who has represented his country with distinction over the course of his 101 caps
The IRFU decided they wouldn’t stand in the way of Paul O'Connell, a man who has represented his country with distinction over the course of his 101 caps
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Over the course of his glittering career in red and green, few have stood in Paul O'Connell's way and lived to tell the tale.

Just over a month ago, IRFU performance director David Nucifora was asked about Toulon's interest in Paul O'Connell.

The Australian was adamant that the Ireland captain's future was "not on the agenda" and the sense leaving Lansdowne Road that day was that he might be allowed to retire, but breaking his contract to move to France would not be a runner.

Days later, O'Connell was fulfilling a commercial obligation when he conceded that his contract, which ran until June 2016, would rule out any potential transfers, although he couldn't envisage a scenario where the union would force him to play out his last year if he'd wanted to retire.

So, what changed over the course of the ensuing weeks for the IRFU to stand aside and allow O'Connell secure a release from his national contract in order to win one last big pay-day in the south of France?

Initially, the 2009 Lions captain, appeared enamoured with the idea of hanging up his boots at the end of Ireland's World Cup campaign appearing an attractive option.

However, having just won the Six Nations player of the tournament award at the age of 35, part of O'Connell must have wondered why he'd give up at all.

When Toulon, seeking a replacement for Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams and a spiritual, European leader to take on the mantle from Jonny Wilkinson, got in touch and expressed an interest the idea grew legs and must have appeared increasingly attractive.

So, he went personally to IRFU chiefs to negotiate an exit and the union decided they wouldn't stand in the way of a man who has represented his country with distinction over the course of his 101 caps.

The thing about Toulon these days is that they no longer have to offer top dollar to attract the best players.

As well as the financial rewards on offer, which are competitive without needing to be outlandish, potential recruits see a proven record of success, a high calibre of player all working towards a common goal and an attractive lifestyle on the Cote d'Azur.

The size of the squad allows them to offer a player of O'Connell's vintage the chance to pick and choose his games. He'll be called into action on the big days and will be spared the trips to the likes of Oyonnax and La Rochelle.

Retiring from international rugby, means that the big second-row can relax during the furious November and Six Nations windows.

As Brad Thorn, Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines have proved, second-rows have less reason to step away earlier than those in other positions.


"If I was a winger or something, this would be a very hard thing for me to do. Speed isn't a massive part of my position," O'Connell said in April.

"Fitness and being able to get through work is probably the big part of your fitness and maybe age doesn't affect that as much as it does in other positions."

In the intervening period, he clearly decided that there was enough fuel in the tank to carry on.

In yesterday's IRFU statement, he confirmed that he "would like to experience new environments" before getting involved in Munster at a later point. It is the province who will suffer the most from his absence.

Ireland will miss O'Connell, but the end of the 2015 World Cup cycle makes sense as a time to move on and begin blooding new locks with 2019 in mind.

For the province who are seeking a commitment that their favourite son won't play against them if drawn against Toulon on June 17, moving on will be hard to do.

Whether such an arrangement can work in reality would appear highly unlikely and the prospect of a red-and-black-clad O'Connell bestriding Thomond Park one last time remains a realistic prospect.

Anthony Foley is playing catch-up on the international market as he seeks a replacement and, while Donnacha Ryan and Dave Foley can pair up if fit, the loss of O'Connell has shorn a side lacking in leaders with its most senior general.

O'Connell owed Munster nothing, however, and it would have been churlish to have stood in his way. The IRFU appear to have agreed and took the unprecedented step of standing aside.

He'll get to go out on his own terms and at this stage, after two years in Toulon, even one last Lions tour in 2017 might not be beyond him.

Irish Independent

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