Picking his battles with care
As competitive as ever, Paul O'Connell wants to wring the most from his career, says Brendan Fanning
It is appropriate almost that Paul O'Connell is injured at the minute and battling to be fit to face Samoa on Saturday. So much of his regime these days is spent on micro-managing his body to get on the field for match days that he is on autopilot when it comes to the subject.
The calf strain that kept him out of training last week; the broken arm that cost him a place in the final two Tests for the Lions last summer; the back that needed surgery and from which he recovered just in time to make that tour; the tweaked hamstring in pre-season this year which robbed him of fitness from the get-go; the torn knee ligaments on his last game in green, way back in March 2012. Land on any square on the O'Connell monopoly board and there's a high price to pay.
How many Tests has it cost him? Well, since that last run for Ireland – the 17-17 draw with France in Paris – there have been 12 internationals he would have been a part of, if fit. And that's only the recent stuff. It wasn't that getting concussed on his debut,
against Wales in 2002, was a portent of things to come, but after a great stretch of 10 games in a row through 2003 when he was young and a bit wild and seemingly unstoppable, it's never been quite the same. Paul O'Connell has completed just four of the 10 Championship campaigns since then.
The aggregate of all the setbacks, which, including a couple of suspensions, have piled up in the last three seasons, is that at 34 he is almost suffering feelings of detachment.
Joe Schmidt had the players in for a couple of quick get-togethers at the start of the season but last week was their first time under the new coaching team with a Test match in focus. O'Connell was on the sideline and straining to hear what was being said.
Meanwhile in Munster, the way he describes it, it's like he has an OAP parking spot and a mantra to repeat every time he goes to work: take it easy now, we don't need an accident.
"I don't do any of the weights that the other lads do any more," he says, almost forlornly. "I mainly do my own specific stuff that suits my body, suits my injuries. I don't train as much as some of the other lads. In Munster on Wednesday we have a half an hour craft session where guys get to work on their individual weaknesses or things they want to work on. A lot of the second rows might go out and do kick-offs or might do some rogue tackling around the breakdown, but I generally don't do that Wednesday session because I need a warm-up. I try to get out onto the pitch for 10 or 12 minutes before everyone else and do my own warm-up that suits me. I don't do a lot of the plyos (plyometrics) anymore. I just have very specific stuff for me now. I've only really brought that in since my back (operation). I suppose I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm at a certain stage now where I need to specify my training for myself and that's what I'm doing. I feel a lot better for it."
It extends to the gym where it is considered unwise for him to do the same weights programme as the younger guns. Otherwise this could end up in an impromptu competition. A dog would sooner pass a lamppost than O'Connell would back down on a winning line. One day in Manley on the Lions tour he found himself with a few team-mates caught up in a beach volleyball game with some girls, one of whom seemingly was an Olympic athlete.
"They beat us but we gave them a good game," he says. "We were ahead like, we were ahead at one stage. They were having a bit of crack at the start but they started getting serious then once they were behind, so it was good crack."
You imagine it would have been even better had they won, but you get the picture. If O'Connell is to have any chance of reaching the terrific milestone of four World Cups, in England in 2015, then he has to choose his battles. And for someone who grew up fighting first and asking questions later, this is hard.
"You've got to accept that you've a lot of work in the bank that these young guys don't have; you've more experience that these young guys don't have. It's a question of looking after your body now and making sure you get on the pitch, and getting on the pitch in the best shape you can and not be trying to get the extra two or three per cent out of the weights and the extra two per cent out of the speed or the extra two per cent out of the fitness.
"Fitness is a thing I've always had. It's always been a big strength of mine. I've always needed (only) a few sessions and a few games to get back generally to where I was. But I wouldn't have always accepted that and I've tried to push it and compete with other guys. It's just a question of accepting where I am (now) and realising that the more I'm on the pitch the better I'll play. When I get a run of games I still feel I can play where I was when I was playing really well."
Exactly where he will be playing seems less of an issue when viewed in this light. O'Connell brought an avalanche of questions down on his own head twice recently with comments about playing abroad. On their own they were an unambiguous declaration of wanderlust – in the times we live in however, post Sexton-flight, they took on even more meaning. Surely the last thing he needs is to relocate to an environment where Test rugby is seen as an intrusion?
"I think when you've been with a club for a very long time they appreciate what you've put in and I suppose they've a better tendency towards looking after you," he says. "And certainly that's what Munster and Ireland are doing with me at the moment."
While he'd love to have sampled something different, the reality was that he couldn't leave a Munster set-up where the Heineken Cup was a trophy they were either attacking or defending for most of the noughties. There was no decision to be made.
Now it's about getting himself to the finish line. It was performance consultant Fergus Connolly – who was an adviser in Dublin's All-Ireland success this year – who introduced Munster to the Maldini Principle two seasons ago. It's a programme designed to wring the last drop from an athlete's career, and monitoring everything that matters is at its core. So, among other things, O'Connell needs to hit the hay at 10.30 each night.
The next morning he marks the quality of his sleep on a scale of 1-5. In a nice twist he has to relax totally in order to satisfy his competitive streak and score high.
The real challenge for him however is to get the same rhythm on and off the field. While the silver lining on his injury clouds of the last few seasons has meant his mileage is not actually that high, all the interruptions have cost O'Connell the flow players need to glide over and through niggles. It's like every speed bump rattles something else loose.
He is enthused however by the excitement around the Ireland camp under Joe Schmidt, and the challenge of being part of a Munster team trying to produce a whole new set of leaders. So there is a bit to be done yet.
"In terms of playing I think the big focus for me is to be at the next World Cup and to be in as good a shape as I've ever been," he says. "And I'll see after that about playing. I'm not sure after that."
You suspect that would be far enough.