Saturday 20 January 2018

'When he spoke, he was imposing, compelling'

Paul O’Connell soars highest in trademark pose to win a lineout during last year’s World Cup clash against Canada at the Millennium Stadium. Photo: Getty
Paul O’Connell soars highest in trademark pose to win a lineout during last year’s World Cup clash against Canada at the Millennium Stadium. Photo: Getty
Munster fans applaud Paul O’Connell from Thomond Park for the last time. Photo: Sportsfile
Celebrating a try on his Ireland debut against Wales in 2002. Photo: Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Nothing became Paul O'Connell quite like his final act on the rugby pitch. His hamstring had been ripped from the bone after being hit from either side by Wesley Fofana and Pascal Papé, but the Ireland captain attempted to get back on his feet and re-join the defensive effort.

His leg couldn't take the weight and as the play went on, most Irish eyes remained trained on the 10-metre line where Dr Eanna Falvey raced to his side.

The half-time whistle went and the Munster second-row remained on his back, hands on his head. On came the stretcher, but he refused to give in, trying one more time to walk from the arena before admitting defeat.

Yesterday, he conceded that he had an inkling that his career might be over on that afternoon in October, but he wanted to go out on his own terms.

"He was obviously really injured and knew he was in trouble," Falvey recalled. "He didn't want to come off on a stretcher which tells you an awful lot about the guy. He tried to stand up and was in absolute agony and had to lie down again.

"You're in a situation where, when you've worked out what's wrong with him on the pitch and the best thing was to take him off the field on a stretcher but you have to respect the person: there's an injured player, an injured man and a man; you have to treat all of those three things.

"I started with Munster in 2003, I know Paul well and have been trucking together with him an awful long time now."

The bravery that marked O'Connell's work on the pitch was matched by the intense drive for standards off it, but there was scope for some levity at the right times.

A week later, the totemic lock was confined to the stands having flown back to Cardiff for the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. Beside him was young gun Tadhg Furlong, who hadn't made the cut for the match-day 23.

"Naturally enough the camera always kept panning to Paulie," the New Ross native recalled with a smile. "This first time we flashed up on the big screen, he just turned to me and said: 'We made it kid'."

"I suppose I'm a bit envious that I didn't get more time with him, more campaigns with him, like some of the other lads had.

"It was him and Brian O'Driscoll who were the constant 'poster boys' of Irish rugby for a long time.

"He is someone, growing up, that I definitely looked up to. He was constant in the Irish team, always performing well. To come in here and meet him, play with him, train with him and learn off him was invaluable."

While Furlong was left frustrated at the little time he shared with O'Connell, Conor Murray has grown up in the same dressing-room as his fellow Limerick man and witnessed his famous competitive nature at close hand.

"It wasn't just what you saw on the rugby pitch. It was like that when he was playing table tennis or any little warm-up games before training. That was just the way he was," the scrum-half said.

"He was constantly having little chats with No 9s, No 10s, centres, going over what they were doing and what he expected of them. He really just gelled the team together and then you knew he was going to go to war physically, set a standard for himself for you to follow.

"We played Racing (Metro) away in the Heineken Cup a couple of years ago and I had a bit of a nightmare. We were playing Edinburgh the following week and in my head I wanted to play as well as I could and get man of the match and try and put the wrongs right.

"Within the first 20 minutes of that game he had three or four turnovers, some big carries and a few hits and I was thinking to myself that I just couldn't outplay that guy on that day. He was like that for years."

For former Ireland defence coach Les Kiss, yesterday's confirmation that O'Connell would never again grace another rugby pitch was a sad moment.

"Everyone had a huge interest to see how he would go in France. He's probably the greatest that I've ever worked with. He is just an icon. He's a man of great substance," he said.

"When he spoke, he was imposing, he was compelling. When he stood in the dressing-room with all the players around him, he was a force of nature, a man that could gel the energy within a group of people to make things happen.

"He is going to be a great loss to rugby, and I know he was very sad at the time when he originally picked up the injury which would have compromised his chances of enjoying the lifestyle over there, the type of rugby and taking his family over to experience something new.

"So I really feel for him now that he has had to call quits.

"If there was one thing Paulie was, it was certainly not a quitter. If he was able to go there, he would have been. Taking the medical advice he just had to move the way he has gone. I guess that Toulon's loss may well be Munster's gain as I can see him being involved there."

Yesterday, O'Connell was keen to keep talk of next steps for another day as he made his goodbye permanent. Judging by the outpouring of goodwill, he won't be short of offers whatever way he goes.

Irish Independent

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