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Johnny O’Connor brings down the curtain on his career against Glasgow tomorrow night

Johnny O’Connor brings down the curtain on his career against Glasgow tomorrow night

Johnny O’Connor brings down the curtain on his career against Glasgow tomorrow night

WITH one shrill blast of a whistle, the curtain will come down on 14 years. For all of his professional life and before it, Johnny O'Connor has had a link to the Sportsground.

Other than the goodbyes to O'Connor, Eric Elwood and Adrian Flavin, tomorrow's game against Glasgow is essentially meaningless for Connacht. It's the difference between finishing eighth and ninth.

Even in the years he spent in London playing for Wasps, there was a draw to this place. But, tomorrow, the 33-year-old will walk off the Sportsground turf and step into life after rugby with applause ringing in his ears.

Throughout his career, major rugby figures have taken a shine to the Corinthians man. He came to prominence during an extraordinarily successful four-year spell at Wasps, where he won five major trophies (two Heineken Cups, two Premierships and one Powergen Cup).

Keith Wood once urged then Ireland coach Warren Gatland to put the young O'Connor straight into the senior side. Gatland opted to play him in the 'A' team instead but later conceded he had erred on the side of caution.

Lawrence Dallaglio famously described O'Connor as "a pain in the a**e" after Connacht played Wasps in a pre-season game and urged Gatland, by now head coach at the English Premiership side, to sign him.

Having coached in Connacht, the Kiwi had extensive contacts in the province and didn't delay when O'Connor was recommended by another senior player. The flanker joined Wasps in 2003. For a man who would become so inextricably linked to his home province, the decision to move was surprisingly easy.

Funny

"I was 22 or 23 and I couldn't wait to get away from here. It's funny, sometimes you need to get away," he says.

Harlequins were also interested through John Kingston – who had coached O'Connor at Galwegians – but Gatland was building something special at Wasps. They were Premiership champions and it was the start of a golden era for the club and O'Connor.

"The coaches, Gats and Shaun (Edwards) and Tony Hanks too, the way they spoke to me made me play way outside my potential. They made a big difference.

"It's hard to create that environment but it makes championship teams. It doesn't last forever but when it's there it's fantastic."

O'Connor's form caught the eye and the rumour mill suggested that he was being courted by England. O'Connor had already played Ireland 'A' but the media still touted the Galway man as the potential replacement for World Cup-winning openside Neil Back.

"Complete paper talk" O'Connor says now. "The lads in Connacht still call me English John because of it."

It wasn't all plain sailing in Wasps and a ruptured Achilles in 2004 left him physically compromised. The injury robbed him of pace, which he tried to reclaim by dropping over half a stone – a considerable concession for someone already punching out of his weight in back-row terms.

He adapted his game and changed but injury would rule him out of three major finals during his time at Wasps. And his 2006 Powergen final lasted only 46 seconds before a collision left O'Connor temporarily paralysed with an injury that would dog him long after he returned to playing.

"It was pretty bad. When that happened I was lying on the ground thinking 'f***, am I gone here?'" he admits. "That minute, 45 seconds was like an eternity. 'Can I not move here?'

"I lost a lot of strength and had a lot of wastage off my left side. It was weak, my left arm was dead and on fire all the time. It took me a long time to get back.

"I had to go to Aylesbury, an hour and a half drive away, to jump in a machine for my neck to strengthen it. I did an awful lot of neck stuff. There's a profile photo from Wasps where my neck is huge because of the amount of stuff I was doing to protect it."

After seven months of rehab, the injury healed but the mental scars took much longer to sort out.

Only this week, former Irish soccer international John Thompson referenced the pressures on the mind in such circumstances when he retired after picking up horrific injuries that required 60 stitches to his face. O'Connor struggled similarly – and silently.

"You get back from that and then you have to go and play. Everyone tells you that you are okay but in your head you're not okay. I wasn't okay," he admits. "I found it hard to be consistent because sometimes I was scared to play.

"I thought I was going to get hurt. I was like that for about a year or more.

"Sometimes you're going in to clean out a ruck and might just pull out a small bit. Your brain is going 'hang on a second here'. It took a while. I played some good games but sometimes it was in the back of my mind going into games that I didn't feel safe.

"Some days I'd say 'I'm going for this' and then I'd feel almost paralysed on the pitch.

"I probably did okay in people's minds, then you'd get feedback off your coaches and they'd say you were doing fine but I didn't feel like it.

"That leaves a mental scar – you don't normally come across that sort of frailty. I had broken bones and got hurt but I had never felt like that before. It was scary."

Eventually, he took the matter into his own hands and went back to basics, working on his knees, hitting tackle-bags held by an understanding team-mate. "The stuff you'd teach a child," he recalls now.

On his return to Connacht he quietly sought out a hypnotist. He coughed up a grand of his own money too – "It helped a lot."

He might never have gone back to the Sportsground. There was an 11th hour option to high-tail it to Munster but he chose home.

In 2007, there was a new excitement about Connacht. He had left the province at the same time as Gavin Duffy and they returned together. O'Connor remained in extended Ireland squads but, with David Wallace firmly established in the No 7 shirt, he never added to his 12 caps.

"I think they were pretty fair to me. People get caught up in that 'if you are Connacht player it's harder'. If you are good enough, you'll get picked. Robbie Henshaw is from Connacht and he's good and he gets picked doesn't he?

"People who feel they are hard done by say 'Ah the coach doesn't like me because I'm from Connacht'... Coaches are in the business of winning. He doesn't pick you because he thinks someone is better than you and you have to be able to deal with it."

Steadier

O'Connor looks back on the Connacht of 2007 and sees a side looking for a quick fix, but tomorrow night he's happy to be leaving behind a province on a much steadier footing.

"The difference now is that we have brought through players who are pretty talented, we have invested in the academy and those lads like Robbie Henshaw are able to play football and have a fantastic array of skills," he says.

"We've improved, we got players in, we've got more money to invest. We're building slowly and in another two or three years maybe we'll be a top-four or six team."

O'Connor did his part to leave behind that legacy. He holds a degree in strength and conditioning and wants to remain involved in professional sport, whether with Connacht or abroad. Either way, he's happy to bring his playing days to an end, on his own terms and in his own back yard.

"I did the best I could with the cards I was dealt. Athletically, I have lost a bit because of injury but I know guys who have quit through injury," he says.

"I had plenty of career-threatening injuries where I could have got a pay-out and not played this game. I got the best out of myself in the circumstances I had. I can truly say that – I don't know if everyone else can."

Irish Independent