Tuesday 23 January 2018

Neil Francis: Paul O'Connell is the person you'd want your children to be

Paul O'Connell has the aura of a champion and that's why the whole country is drawn to him

‘If I have seen 100 pictures of O’Connell securing the ball at the top of his jump it is not an accident.’ — Paul O’Connell wins a lineout against England in Croke Park in 2007. Photo: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile
‘If I have seen 100 pictures of O’Connell securing the ball at the top of his jump it is not an accident.’ — Paul O’Connell wins a lineout against England in Croke Park in 2007. Photo: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A good while ago I went to meet someone in my local café. It was summertime and the sun filled the room. I caught sight of the guy I was meeting and was walking down to him when out of the periphery a hand and then a voice. "Hey Frano." I looked over, nodded and kept going. I tucked away my eggs Benedict and as I gave the plate to the waitress this guy is waving again. Thumbs up and an acknowledgement and I turned to conclude business with my friend.

I got saddled with the bill as my friend walked out and suddenly a shadow and a soft Scottish lilt. "Hey Frano, have I done something to upset you?" Quite what Gavin Hastings was doing in South Dublin in June is beyond me - but I apologised, used the 'out of context' excuse, I genuinely did not recognise him.

"How is trade?"

"Not good," he says. Hastings International was basically a vehicle for Gavin Hastings Inc. "The kids have no idea who I am and the older generation have forgotten me."

Hastings was a Lions series winner. He captained the Lions and Scotland. A record points scorer. He was a World Cup semi-finalist and a Grand Slam winner - depriving England of it in a match that exposed the raw enmity between England and Scotland.

I quoted Babe Ruth to him. "Maybe you are just not a legend anymore, Gav." A rueful smile and a shrug of the shoulders. "Maybe I'm not."

What must you do to be remembered by all? To garner the grateful appreciation of a nation long after your last match, long after you end up in the grave.

Practically everyone in the country knows who Paul O'Connell is, not just because he is a great rugby player, but because he is a standard-bearer for the country and someone whose principles, moral compass, ideals and heroic virtue makes us wish our children would aspire to be someone like him.

The nation admires him and pays homage because of the wonder his resilience and desperate will to win evoked. The aura of a champion is compelling and the whole country was drawn to him.

Yet despite his readiness to sacrifice the integrity of his spirit and the surety that he is indeed the authentic article - you can grasp from his book The Battle that his career, certainly the back half of it, seemed to be a battle, him alone against his own limitations.

It is hard to feign modesty and there are many things he has said in the public domain which give you a sense of the man. In a training day with Katie Taylor - a kindred spirit - he said: "I'm no world beater at anything, I'm just very competitive."

I'm sure I have seen him play a bad game for Ireland or Munster but I just can't remember it. As with all superior players, the struggle is always with themselves, not their opponents.

Many of O'Connell's team-mates would have pointed to his hands in open field - they weren't good enough. He would knock the ball on. If you carry a lot of the time then you will probably have a greater chance of making mistakes.

What were his team-mates doing while he was making himself available to carry? In his 'quieter' games the stats would tell the truth. He would still have been number one on the tackle count or rucks cleared. The engine and the work ethic never stopped.

He was revered and respected in equal measure at the top table at a time when the number of world-class second-rows around beggared belief. From Martin Johnson through to Victor Matfield, O'Connell's bona fides were irreproachable in all company.

Maybe it's appropriate to recall a few vignettes to remind ourselves of the qualities that set him apart from his contemporaries.

The Catch

Ireland v England, February 2007

The beauty of this photograph is that it is an original - the shutter captures O'Connell right at the height of his jump. It illustrates the full spectrum of his athletic gifts. Everyone in the picture caught in a moment in time. It is a great picture. The occasion had huge significance - a crushing defeat for the English made it no less satisfying.

This photograph copperfastened the sense of superiority. Ireland were masterful that day and it is encapsulated in how their alpha male wins this lineout. Timing is everything at lineout time and if I have seen 100 pictures of O'Connell securing the ball at the top of his jump it is not an accident. His awareness, presence and prescience in the air were extraordinary.

He had this great ability to stretch backwards like Ali on the ropes if the ball was slightly overthrown and like all the great aerial impresarios could pick them off behind his body. Blind. A kind of sixth sense of knowing where the ball would be even though he couldn't see it. When they bury him, this photo will be his epitaph.

The Tackle

Ireland v Australia, November 2014

There were many tackles but this one was an effrontery to human weakness. In the 78th minute Ireland were out on their feet. They were tired and were falling off tackles. Ireland had been very good all day but with the score at 26-23 the Australians were coming in waves. They had possession short of Ireland's 22. This was going to be a 'woulda, coulda, shoulda' performance where the stronger mental application of the SANZA sides prevail over the weaker northern hemisphere sides unable to sustain the quality of the challenge to the final whistle.

There would be nods of acceptance and understanding at the press conference - we gave it our best shot, the Aussies had one last chance and they took it - that's why they are world class, aren't they? Not this day!

It is always mystifying that in a team game where there are 15 players on one team that it is always the same players making the big plays. O'Driscoll had retired and so it was left to a 34-year-old second-row who had bled to the raw in a hugely physical game.

There were three or four players in the vicinity who could have made the decisive tackle to stop Australia's momentum, yet when it came to it the man with unflagging will would once again do what had to be done in decisive fashion.

Australia going right to left got the ball to Ben McCalman, a rugged journeyman No 8. One more gain line and quick recycle and Australia had the necessary numbers outside to score. O'Connell smashed him. A low continuous drive that dumped McCalman back seven metres. The crowd exhaled and marvelled at the quality of such a tackle at such a stage in the game.

Australia recycled but the momentum in their outfield runners had been stopped in its tracks. The tackle saved the game. O'Connell, dauntless, understood the responsibility of the situation and brought his exemplar personality to bear. A great moment.

The Courage

Australia v The Lions, June 2013

I have broken both of my arms. It is a deeply unpleasant experience. The sound of the crack, the bone pushing through the skin, the intense pain, the light-headedness, the loss of power and the waiting for your body to go into shock . The polite applause as you walk off the field. An all-pervading sense of emptiness as you contemplate two months out and rehab. Maybe the cast nurses would be pretty?

It is the 78th minute again and Paul O'Connell is about to captain the Lions to victory in the first Test in Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane. Again Australia are pressing and in possession. Wycliff Palu, no less a proposition to Ben McCalman, comes into contact with O'Connell and the Red smashes his forearm against the Australian's head.

Every player knows when they have injured themselves badly and O'Connell knows he is in trouble. James Robson comes on to the pitch and examines him for about a minute. He has no power in his arm. In the heat of battle O'Connell is an oasis of emotional calm and after a small bit of feeling returns to his arm and in a casual, almost indiscriminate fashion chooses to ignore the pain and play on. There is almost a psychopathic component in the constituency of every champion and this act proved it.

O'Connell got into the scrum, bound up and packed down. Most of the Australians were astonished because they were certain that O'Connell had broken his arm. Kurtley Beale fell over as he attempted a last-second penalty goal and when the final whistle blew O'Connell wandered off to hospital where it was confirmed that his arm was broken in two places - self-preservation at the bottom of the list. An indomitable demonstration of courage over pain . How many people do we know would or could play on?

The End

Ireland v France, October 2015

I was in France during the summer and my middle son explained to me the significance of the rider on horse statues. If the horse has all four hooves on the ground then the rider died of natural causes unrelated to battle. If the horse has one hoof off the ground this signifies the rider was injured in battle and died later of his wounds. Where the horse has two hooves off the ground it means that this rider died during battle. O'Connell was always going to die in battle.

I have seen Abraham Zapruder's flickering movie reel of JFK's assassination hundreds of times. That crimson splash at the moment of impact does not get any less horrifying with each viewing. Sometimes the good guys don't get to choose how they go. The footage of O'Connell's final moment on a rugby pitch is almost reminiscent of that dreadful day in Dallas. Yes, Ireland won a great victory but at a huge cost - our commander in chief was down. Ireland would not recover and would fail abysmally the following week against Argentina.

A total avulsion of the hamstring is a very serious injury. Tearing that muscle off the bone again is a frightfully painful experience. It was heart-rending to see O'Connell try to get up twice to see if it was just a hamstring strain. The theatrical understatement of it all. Everyone watching knew it was serious - very serious. It was the end.

What was especially galling was that Pascal Pape was the opponent who fell over the ruck as O'Connell went about his business. The way the leg compressed you just knew that the outcome was going to be unfavourable. Oxygen and a buggy stretcher bearer. It doesn't end like this, it shouldn't end like this. Sack the script writers.

Yet if you were to ask every rugby player in the world would they take a career like O'Connell's but it would end in the Millennium Stadium the way it did, all of them would bite your hand off.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

I have a feeling this is not the end. There is a second chapter to come.


'Heroes get remembered - legends never die.'

Babe Ruth

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