Sport Rugby

Friday 20 April 2018

Paul O'Connell: 'I want to lead by example at Toulon'

O'Connell targets January or February return as he joins new team-mates after injury delay

Such is Paul O’Connell’s status, Toulon delayed the squad’s 2015/16 official photograph
until his arrival yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE
Such is Paul O’Connell’s status, Toulon delayed the squad’s 2015/16 official photograph until his arrival yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The images that began appearing on social media midway through yesterday afternoon were a tad unsettling: Paul O'Connell in a different shade of red began appearing on timelines and it simply didn't look right.

But this is the new normal for the former Ireland captain and as much as his adoring public will have to get used to seeing him giving his all for the Toulon cause instead of Munster's, he concedes he has a lot of adjusting to do too.

After two months of post-op rest, recovery and rehab, the legendary second-row was finally able to join up with his new team-mates at their training base yesterday.

Such is his status, they delayed the squad's 2015/16 official photograph for the arrival of the man Mourad Boudjellal hopes will be his clubs's new talisman - the European totem around which the next wave of success will be built.

Tearing his hamstring off the bone was not part of the plan, but such is the lot of a high-level rugby player and O'Connell hopes to have recovered in time to make his debut either next month or in February.

After a lifetime in Limerick and a professional career spent playing for Munster, the 36-year-old acknowledges that it is not going to be easy.

"This is going to be a big challenge, even already I see different ways of doing things than what I'm used to. It's up to me to adapt to that and learn the Toulon way of doing things," he said at his unveiling press conference.

"I've only ever played for Munster, I've only ever lived in Limerick. It's a big change for me, I'm looking forward to it, but I'm also nervous about it. So, I like the jersey and I'm looking forward to wearing it."

O'Connell concedes that there were moments when he feared that this moment might not come at all as he contemplated the devastating injury he suffered in the epic win over France in October.

"Yes and no," he said when asked if he was worried he might not play again. "There's no doubt when the injury happened I thought to myself, would I get back or would I recover?

"Luckily for me, the surgery was a success and it's been feeling very, very good now for about two weeks. So there was doubts but I'm fairly confident now that it is going to come right."

He gave a positive bulletin that he may return far sooner than expected.

"It's good, it's on the mend. I've been doing physio back in Ireland, so I feel very good doing everyday things," he said. "I haven't started running yet. Hopefully, I'll be back January or February, I'm not fully sure yet."

Old foe

Unfortunately, the injury means he won't be able to return to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday for his new side's meeting with his old foe Leinster.

"I don't think they need my help," he smiled. "They did a good job last week in tough conditions, but I think this will be an even bigger challenge. There'll probably be 50,000 at the game, it'll be a full house.

"It will be the biggest game of Leinster's season, even though they only have a slim chance of qualifying now. It will be the biggest game of their season and I'm sure Toulon realise that, but I haven't got a lot of advice to offer that (coach) Bernard Laporte and the guys don't know already.

"When you are out injured the coaches and the players have to move on and work hard without you. I am here to help out any way I can. There are a lot of talented players here already.

"I don't think anyone is going to expect me to run the length of the pitch and side-step a full-back or anything like that. Hopefully if I can help out in the lineout, help out in the set piece, help out in analysis.

"I really enjoy rugby, enjoy preparing. Hopefully if I can show that to the other players and lead by example, I would love to that as well."

Although yesterday was his first experience of team meetings and the Toulon way, he has faced up to the four-in-a-row chasing European champions and knows what to expect.

"An incredible team," he said. "Probably most of all they've incredible spirit and that is the thing that I identify with most. I've played against them twice and lost both times, and it's just that there's world-class players here.

"It's the same as I would have done in Munster and the same as everyone would have done in Munster. I suppose it's easier in Munster because you've grown up in the area and it's where you come from. I think that's the most admirable thing here, that players move down and they just seem to buy into it really well and play with a lot of heart and spirit."

Last night, O'Connell was celebrated at Croke Park having been voted Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year by the readers of this newspaper, but now he has a whole new audience to audition for at 36. It sounds like he's up for the challenge.

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