Looking back at Paul O'Connell
Do you remember how it all started?
About 13 and a half years ago, an all-action second row thundered onto the pitch at the old Lansdowne Road to begin his Ireland career. We didn’t know we were seeing the making of a legend.
How could we? He was large but somewhat gangly, far away from the gargantuan behemoth he is today.
But in fairness to Paul O’Connell, he did drop some hints that afternoon in 2002.
He charged into Craig Quinnell with all the force we have grown accustomed to – pity that he caught the Welsh forward’s elbow and hit the ground with a thud. Back then, the concussion protocols weren’t what they are today and O’Connell ended up coming out of a heap of bodies a few minutes later with the ball, having scored his first international try.
Famously, he walked off the pitch having no memory of crossing the whitewash.
It was a fitting debut for a man who gave it his all every time he wore the green jersey, no more so than at Lansdowne Road, where his sheer presence seemed to drive Ireland on.
Today’s 16-10 loss to Wales marks the Ireland captain’s final home appearance in green but his farewell tour at the Aviva Stadium has been just as memorable as any string of performances he put in over his lengthy career.
There was driving back Aussie Ben McCalman like a dump truck as Ireland held onto their 26-23 lead for dear life last autumn.
There was his ‘we need something more from you’ push on Simon Zebo two weekends ago against Scotland that galvanised his side into action.
And even in defeat today, he launched himself into every collision like a torpedo and lead the fight against Wales’ most potent forwards. One move was classic O’Connell.
Shrewd snaffler Justin Tipuric hulked over the ball in pursuit of a yet another turnover but Paulie had seen enough. With those two big bear claws he upended the Welshman onto his back – the only downside was that a touch judge standing 50 yards away apparently spotted something that a referee standing one yard away didn’t.
We also got to see a glimpse of O’Connell’s successor. He might be sporting a good deal more hair than the veteran even managed as a youngster, but Iain Henderson’s bulldozing ball carrying and destructive rucking might even surpass O’Connell’s one day. Midway through the first half, Welsh centre Scott Williams danced through a hole in the Irish defence and was tackled a yard from the line. O’Connell was able to hold the ball up just long enough for his second row partner to annihilate anyone in its path and come away with a turnover.
Now that is some one-two punch.
“A few months later will be the time to look back, not now,” O’Connell said to Sky Sports after the game.
When O’Connell finally does reflect on his illustrious career, the memories he forged at home in the green jersey in the heat of battle will standout forever.