Monday 23 September 2019

Toner backing O'Connell to bounce back from injury woe

Paul O’Connell on his crutches at yesterday’s press conference in Dublin
Paul O’Connell on his crutches at yesterday’s press conference in Dublin
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

One-by-one the Ireland players re-emerge into the spotlight and try as they might to convince that the pain of the World Cup exit has already been parked, the memories have surely not disappeared that rapidly.

Yesterday, it was the turn of Devin Toner and Paul O'Connell on what was his first public appearance since having his international career cruelly cut short by the injury suffered against France.

The sight of the talismanic skipper attempting to get to his feet, despite having just ripped his hamstring clean off the bone, is one particular, unfortunate, image that will stay with Irish supporters for some time yet.

Like a prized racehorse who had fallen at the final fence, O'Connell knew his race was run and he now faces up to eight months on the sidelines as his new journey with Toulon is firmly put on hold for now.

O'Connell may not feature for the French giants at all this season and he will certainly miss Toulon's back-to-back European dates with Leinster next month.


"I am and I amn't," Toner smiled when asked if he was disappointed not to be coming up against the player who mentored him throughout his early international career.

"That would have been nice, to go up against him, but at the same time I'd rather not as well!"

O'Connell's influence over Toner is one that typifies how highly he is regarded by each of his team-mates.

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The pair struck up a formidable partnership that was fundamental in Ireland's back-to-back Six Nations titles, but the changing of the guard has long been under way since before the World Cup and Toner understands the added responsibility that now falls on his shoulders.

"At the very beginning when I got my first cap he wasn't around, so then I came back in after two or years and then started playing with him," he recalled.

"I've always said that the two people I've learned the most from are Leo (Cullen) and Paulie.

"Just the way he goes about his business, how he went about getting the lineout menu for the week, different moves he'd use, and just seeing his work ethic and how he'd go about his business, to be honest.

"Hopefully the younger lads will kind of look up to me as well. I've kind of got a more senior role in the last couple of years in Leinster and when we were away I think some of the younger lads did really well.

"I think you kinda just evolve into that role, to be honest. It's not something that you control or change. But I think over the last couple of years, I've grown into it."

Strapped by a heavy leg brace, O'Connell will be ambling along on crutches for some time yet. The surgery was a success but he now faces, in his own words, the biggest challenge of his career as he looks to fight back to full fitness at the ripe old age of 36.

The move to the south of France is still pencilled in to go ahead next month, but it will be a while before he is seen in a shade of red different to that of the one of Munster.

"It's the worst injury pain that I've had," O'Connell admitted.

"Its funny the amount of things that go through your head when it happens. I was thinking of when Eoin Reddan broke his ankle at the Aviva (against France in 2013).

"I remember him trying to get up, so I was thinking to myself on the ground and said I'd only pulled a hamstring so I thought I better get up.

"And then when the physio and the doctor came on, I was thinking the same again. I've never been stretchered off in my career, so I got up, but that was too sore and I went back down and I got stretchered off."

It was a sorry way for O'Connell's glittering 13-year international career to come to an end and while he also ruled himself out of the 2017 Lions tour, Toner reckons that such is his professionalism, the Limerick native will be back in action sooner than people think.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it's five or six months, to be honest. He follows his protocols religiously, he's the most professional man you'd ever come across and I think he'll do everything 110/120pc.

"If he's hitting his targets towards the end of the season then I think he'll do his best to get back, to be honest, because I think he's got a lot of pressure on his shoulders there in Toulon and he'll want to impress there as well," Toner added.


The squad's review of the defeat to the Pumas will take place after Christmas and although O'Connell doesn't believe that there is a need for radical changes, he was keen to highlight what he felt was the major obstacle compared to other countries.

"The shame of it is that we didn't make a semi-final and possibly go further because I even see it on my road at home with my son and all his friends, they're rugby-mad after the World Cup," O'Connell said.

"But now, the soccer is back on now and they're beginning to play a little bit more soccer and soon it's going to be hurling and there's going to be more hurling.

"The Kilkenny hurling team is something I keep coming back to. If rugby was our number one sport then Henry Shefflin would be playing rugby, he'd be playing first centre. The best brains in hurling would be in rugby.

"You'd have Brian Cody involved in rugby, and that's what they have in New Zealand, and that's what we don't have up here.

"For everyone involved in rugby that's the challenge, to try and make this game you want to see kids walking down the road holding a rugby ball."

For Toner and the majority of the Ireland players, it's back to the day job as they look to further ease the World Cup pain.

O'Connell will have to wait a while but there is time enough yet for him to write himself into Toulon's rapidly growing history books.

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