Saturday 25 November 2017

Paul O'Connell: Out of the darkness

Fully recovered from his career threatening injury and recently introduced to the joys of fatherhood, life is getting better and better for Ireland’s leader of the pack PaulO’Connell

Ireland's Paul O'Connell during a press conference. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Paul O'Connell during a press conference. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans 'Beautiful Boy,' John Lennon

"HOWYA!" -- the instantly recognisable, booming voice from the south-west appears more frayed than usual.

"Listen, can we put this off for another hour or so? Emily's just gone out and I need to look after Paddy."

See how Paul O'Connell's life has changed.

Within the past eight months, he has seen the sport that has inextricably bound him in passion and profession be cruelly denied its truest expression.

But then he has also entered the realm of fatherhood. In his mind he daily emulates the soaring heights he has only previously managed to reach on the field; the simple act of bending down to pick up his 10-month-old son Paddy will suffice.

This 31-year-old is tethered to family now -- and it suits him. The old ways are changing and the new days excite him.

And his life is no longer his own.

"Exactly," he assents. "It's gas. Most of my mates are the same now as well. It's funny. And you'd even think you'd be able just to call over to them, or the other way around, but they all have kids now as well and it's tougher.

"It's not so much during the day, it's socially. Heading out to play cards, or heading to a friend's house to watch DVDs or a match, or whatever. There's somebody else who has to be thought about now."

And his life is no longer his own. But then he knew that already. By the April 15 arrival of Paddy into the world, the expectant father had become seriously worried about the troublesome injury that had prevented him from playing since Ireland's dismal Six Nations defeat to Scotland in Croke Park a month earlier.

He was worried about the prognosis. Because there wasn't one. He was worried about the cause. Because there wasn't one.

Worried

He was worried about the time-frame for recovery. Because there wasn't one. He wanted answers. But there weren't any.

Sometimes it seemed as if the smallest thing he's ever held in those familiar shovel-like hands was the only thing that made sense.

"I think it was a great thing to happen," he says of Paddy's arrival. "It was a frustrating time for me and it could have been a lot worse had he not been around. I wasn't too worried about getting sleepless nights, not that I would have had in fairness to Emily (O'Connell's long-term partner), because when I was training and that, she'd be up during the night."

Then he laughs wryly. "I wasn't too worried about it because at the end of the week, there generally wasn't a game."

And everyone wanted to know why. His health became the topic of intense scrutiny on every bar stool and internet chat room in the land; only Brian Lenihan's well-being was subject to more frenzied intrusion.

Public sightings prompted extreme medical bulletins. He'd lost two stone. His cheekbones were sunken. Then the anonymous phone calls to journalists. Depression, we were told. Financial problems after a luckless property deal. Then it got really crazy. Imminent retirement. Cancer, even.

The rumour mill didn't affect O'Connell personally, he says. He may not have known precisely what was afflicting him, but he knew the rumours were ridiculous in the extreme. But the conjecture did damage those closest to him, especially parents Michael and Sheila.

"I would have heard a few of them," he says, referring to the escalating rumours. "Most of them I would have found fairly funny.

"There was nothing I could do, just get on with it. If someone asked me, I'd try to tell him as honestly as I could. A lot of it didn't bug me ... I'd like to think anyway. It would have annoyed my parents more than anything.

"They'd be hearing things and then probably thinking I was protecting them by not telling them what was really going on. I didn't let it get to me. It's strange though, there's rumours around everything at the moment and you can't get away from them.

"But once the injury became clearer, and things were reacting the way they were supposed to, the whole rumour mill quietened down."

Effectively, O'Connell suffered an infection in the pubic symphysis, which is tied to the pubic bone, but complications arose when his immune system failed to respond to various antibiotics.

Hence the medical longueur infused the sense of frenetic fumbling among the public discourse as to the precise nature of the injury.

Being regularly presented as the captain of Munster for team and sponsors' commitments hardly helped; the more that he was asked for clarification, the less he could offer.

"It was difficult," he readily admits, "especially at the start when we didn't have a full handle on it. But once we have a handle on it, you can give somebody a time-frame and have a time frame in your own head, things get way easier.

"But at the start, when you're telling someone three weeks or four weeks, then six weeks go by and nothing's happened ... it's terribly frustrating.

"Everyone gets a long-term injury here or there, but normally you get told, look, you're out for five months. So you go away and start planning accordingly.

"For 75pc of my injury, I never had that and that was the really frustrating thing. It was only towards the end of the summer when we got a handle on the thing that things got a whole lot easier.

"I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was being told the progress being made, and when there was a reaction to certain things.

"Whereas at the start, there wasn't that link between something happening and a reaction at all. It was very tough at the start. It got easier.

"What happened to me could happen to anyone. I wouldn't have one problem with any of the medical guys.

"They tried to cover everything as best the could. It's just that things didn't show up. I mean, I was checked for an infection after a week of the injury and absolutely nothing showed up in my blood.

"And even when we decided that there must be an infection, there was still nothing showing up in my blood. Everyone did everything right. It was just a bad run of events, a bad run of luck.

"I don't know whether it is a strong immune system or a bad immune system. Normally, when indicators show up in the bloods, this guy has an infection, and you go on heavy antibiotics.

"It just didn't show up on mine and for a little while, we didn't know there was infection there and that caused the problem."

When he eventually made his comeback, it was fittingly in the traditional garb of Young Munster, in an AIL game under lights against Shannon at the end of November.

And even more fittingly, he still frets over the fact that his side couldn't win the match as a last-minute kick -- "from a fair distance, mind" -- missed the target.

PRESSURE

"It was a nice feeling," he recalls, "for me, even though for my buddy Mike Prendergast, the coach, and the players it was big, it wasn't the most massively high pressure I've ever played in.

"But it was tough, it was a filthy wet night. There were a lot of physical hits. I came on and played 40 minutes. I struggled fitness-wise because it was so physical. We missed the chance to win it, which would have been nice."

Nothing could have eroded his competitive streak. He had watched from the sidelines as Munster crumbled in last May's Heineken Cup semi-final; that, perhaps, informed his manic desire to compensate when he returned, for all of 10 seconds of this season's pool tie against Ospreys, before cuffing Jonathan Thomas and seeing red.

He did return to begin the mission improbable in Toulon, but ended it a picture of weary despair on the Munster bench, head bowed, arms clasped across his shoulders as if in futile supplication to a higher power.

"I don't think I was contemplating the physical aspect of it, it was just the disappointment of our performance. You don't mind being beaten, but losing is tough, not performing. That's something you never like to do.

"You always want to put in a good performance, give a good account of ourselves. We didn't do that that day. That's probably why I looked like that. Okay, physically I paid for it over the next few days. But it was just looking at the scoreline ... "

Not surprsingly, Munster have been awash with incriminatory inquisitions since. Much as with Ireland, the puncturing of such exalted expectations is inevitable, but one wonders if -- much as with the now extinct Celtic Tiger -- the country lost its perspective during the good times.

"We probably have been spoiled. But expectations are a good thing, it keeps your standards high.

"If you're not successful, questions will be asked. They'll be asked by the media and the supporters, but the key thing is that they are also being asked by the players and the management.

"If we are trying to make ourselves better, if the standards are raised that way, expectations aren't a bad thing. It means you cop a bit of flak in the media, or off the supporters.

"But by and large, it should mean you keep improving. So, the important thing about these last few years is that it becomes a standard, not just a good period in Irish rugby. That's a good thing in my view."

Unashamedly

Still, learning to live in the moment applies now, particularly to O'Connell, more than at any time during that Grand Slam season. "You never know what lies ahead," he notes, unashamedly adopting one-game-at-a-time mode.

"That's when we're more successful with Ireland. When we start getting ahead of ourselves and looking at ourselves as potential winners, that's where we struggle. We tend to perform better when we are more focused on each task in hand."

Yet the seasoned campaigner in him can't but fail to admit that he's "mad" for action.

"There have been times before where we've come into an Irish camp on the back of poor performances and it's been difficult to get going. But this time it feels different and there's been a good mood around the place. It's a bit like 2009 in many ways."

He spent much of his recuperation catching up on DVDs like 'The Wire'. But he's back immersed in the books again now, lately reading Matthew Syed's 'Bounce', which asks whether athletes' talent is nurtured or simply genetic.

As he prepares to return home to Paddy, you ask him what he thinks. He pauses. But only for a fleeting moment.

"I would think it's nurtured ... if you believe it's only down to talent, sure a whole load of people may as well throw their hat at it. You have to work at it."

If the last year has taught Paul O'Connell anything, then this is it. Nothing comes easy.

Nothing is guaranteed.

"I feel good," he says. "Mentally, I feel fresh and all that. A new competition. "It's good to be back in the mix again."

And so, in the Eternal City against Italy, he will end what has seemed like an eternity to resume his international career.

Rugby has missed him. But not half as much as he's missed rugby.

At least he had some company along the way.

Before you go to sleep

Say a little prayer

Every day in every way

It's getting better and better

'Beautiful Boy,' John Lennon

Irish Independent

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