Sport Rugby

Thursday 26 April 2018

Paul O'Connell: Doubts in the back of my mind make me train harder

Sean O'Brien, Paul O'Connell and Rob Kearney at the unveiling of the new Irish Rugby World Cup 2015 jersey by Canterbury and the IRFU INPHO
Sean O'Brien, Paul O'Connell and Rob Kearney at the unveiling of the new Irish Rugby World Cup 2015 jersey by Canterbury and the IRFU INPHO
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The moment he uses the word 'we' when talking about Toulon, the realisation hits home that Paul O'Connell will soon be gone from these shores.

The talismanic second-row remained quiet during all the talk of a move to the South of France but yesterday as he addressed the media for the first time since the announcement, he seemed completely at ease with his decision.

It wasn't a decision he reached easily, however. Having rejected Toulon's first approach, which came around Christmas, the 35-year-old accepted their offer when the club informed him of their intention to sign another second-row.

In April, IRFU performance director David Nucifora insisted that the Ireland captain would see out the remaining year of his contract, but fast-forward three months and he is set to join the European champions after the World Cup.

Jonathan Sexton in action for Racing Metro 92
Jonathan Sexton in action for Racing Metro 92

"I think no matter who you're talking to, any club, you're getting a sales pitch and there's a lot of things you need to take into consideration," O'Connell explained.

"It was something that as the year went on, I felt really good. I started giving it a little bit more and more thought but ultimately, even though I chatted to a few people on it, people who I rely on back here, it was my own decision."

Conversations with Johnny Sexton about his move to France have become more regular nowadays.

The out-half is returning to Leinster after just two years with Racing Metro and O'Connell is prepared to face the same challenges that Sexton did, although the pair are at very different stages of their careers.

The move to France is a lifestyle change more than anything. Toulon carefully pick and choose when they use their more senior players, but O'Connell isn't going there to make up the numbers.

"I speak to Johnny from time to time. He certainly enjoyed it but there were parts that he found really tough as well," O'Connell said.

"I'm sure it'll be the same with me. When you're in an environment for so long you're kind of institutionalised into doing things one way but that's part of the challenge that I'm looking forward to - it's trying to learn that and get outside my comfort zone.

"I don't have anything in my contract around getting every second week off, they've a very big squad, they look after their older players very well.

"From chatting to Nathan Hines, the thing he said that helped him play on was retiring from international rugby. Those autumn windows and Six Nations windows, you get a chance rest up and recover.

"My body's in good shape. In terms of confidence, the older you get, the less confidence you have sometimes. There's so many incredible athletes coming through, you're always under pressure to work harder because you're one of the older guys.

"You get fitter and fitter, sharper and sharper. . . my career was always interrupted with operations and various things like that, so you begin to gather form and then you're out for a period and you're back to square one.

"There's always a bit of doubt in the back of your mind that makes you train hard and makes you prepare."

The prospect of Toulon meeting Munster in the pool stages of the Champions Cup was one that unnerved O'Connell and he breathed a sigh of relief when the two clubs were kept apart.

His 14-year career in red ended with a Pro12 final defeat, and after switching his focus back to Ireland, O'Connell is desperate to go out on a high in a green jersey as he left it in no doubt that the World Cup would definitely be his swansong.

"I was nervous for the Champions Cup draw," he smiled.

"Once you make the commitment to the move you've got to take these things as apart of it, if we had drawn Munster it would have been. . . part of it would have been great, part of it would have been horrible.

"Now we're after getting Leinster, which makes it very interesting."

O'Connell's collective 'we' is no longer concerned with players who he grew up playing with but instead, superstars from all corners of the globe.

It's a new challenge but one that he will face comforted by the fact that it's a decision he came to on his own terms.

l Simon Zebo limped out of training session in Galway yesterday with a knee injury, however, it is not believed to be a serious concern for the Irish management.

Read more: Paul O'Connell on his Toulon change of heart and ending his Irish career after World Cup

Read more: Concern as Simon Zebo suffers knee injury during Ireland open training session

Irish Independent

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