Tuesday 18 June 2019

Sinead Kissane: Time to say thanks to Munster legend Paul O'Connell for the memories

Munster's Paul O'Connell is applauded off the field by the Thomond Park crowd after playing his last home game for the club
Munster's Paul O'Connell is applauded off the field by the Thomond Park crowd after playing his last home game for the club
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

'How much time is left?" It was a question Paul O'Connell asked one of the Munster fitness coaches at training earlier this week. One of the first players out for training as always, O'Connell had already spent 20 minutes warming up at his final training session with the province at Thomond Park.

And as meticulous as always, O'Connell wanted to know exactly how much time he had to finish his own warm-up exercises before the squad session started.

"How much time is left?" was a question the rest of us got answered last weekend regarding O'Connell's future with Munster. On a historic day for our country last Saturday when "yes" was the definitive word of the day, he said in a TV interview that "yes, it's probably the last time I play with Munster here".

And just like that, O'Connell confirmed what Munster fans in Thomond Park had felt that afternoon; that this was farewell for him ahead of his last game for Munster in the Pro12 final against the Glasgow Warriors in Belfast today.

O'Connell has had low points in a Munster red and incidents he had to learn from. Today, after 14 seasons playing with Munster, is a day to say thanks.

So, thanks Paul. Thanks for being the kind of player who trademarks combativeness on the pitch. Yet who hugged his team-mates like Peter O'Mahony and Donncha O'Callaghan after the match last weekend with so much affection that it wasn't difficult to imagine how tough the decision must have been to finish playing with Munster.

Thanks Paul for being the kind of player who plays to win yet who rarely loses his way. When Munster beat Leinster in that epic 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final, O'Connell didn't do any galloping celebration (like after the Grand Slam win in 2009) at the final whistle after a tortuously intense derby game. "There are guys there on the Leinster team that I would have died for a couple of months ago and they would have done the same for us," O'Connell said after.

Thanks Paul for being the kind of player who takes his game seriously yet who doesn't always take himself seriously. It was O'Callaghan who wrongly got the blame for pulling down Alistair Campbell's tracksuit bottoms on the 2005 Lions Tour! It was hilarious watching O'Connell fall into an uncontrollable fit of laughing on stage at the Ireland team kit launch in 2009. Even when he laughs, especially when he laughs, O'Connell's emotions are truly infectious.

There is a brilliant contradictory nature about O'Connell. He's both the ultra-serious player and the guy who breaks into an almighty fit of laughter. "That contradiction has always been there with Paulie," O'Callaghan said in his autobiography 'Joking Apart'. "He's the most intense guy on the planet and in that respect he's a lunatic. The fun side of him has never been part of his public image".

Thanks Paul for being the kind of player who is a supreme tactical nerd yet who also trades off emotion. "Did you scare anyone? Did you put the fear of God into anyone?" is a line which obviously doesn't tactically add up.

Yet O'Connell knows the power of motivation and has a self-awareness to hit the right temperature. Before Munster played Sale in the 2006Heineken Cup pool game at Thomond Park, the build-up was all about calculations and points difference. But O'Connell broke the equation down to family and friends in his pre-match talk: "They should see what it means to you. The people who know you best should see that you're different today".

Thanks Paul for being the kind of man who plays as if his life depends on it yet lives it knowing there is so much more. He had a special friendship with the late Donal Walsh long before Donal became an inspirational public figure.

Thanks Paul for being the kind of man who can speak so authoritively and seriously about the opposition, like he did the day before Ireland played South Africa last November. Yet a few minutes later, he spoke like the proud and loving father that he is when asked about his new-born baby girl.


Thanks Paul for always believing in Munster. For that raised arm celebration after the win over Harlequins in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in 2013. For the gracious way you shared that big moment after the Heineken Cup final win in 2008 when you asked Ronan O'Gara to lift the Cup with you in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Thanks Paul for giving us Munster rugby's version of a Roy Keane-on-Marc Overmars statement tackle. Sebastian Chabal probably still shudders and shakes his long tresses at the memory of the hit he got from O'Connell at Thomond Park.

O'Connell later recalled: "The ball hung in the air and I had to slow up a little bit before he caught it. Then I hit him. He tried to keep his feet and then the boys all came piling in behind me".

And that's where the boys have always been. Right behind him.

The night before O'Connell captained Munster to their second Heineken Cup title in 2008, the Munster head coach Declan Kidney played a clip from the movie 'Coach Carter' of a motivational speech.

Included were the lines: "Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you... As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same."

Thanks Paul. Thanks for being the kind of player and man who never plays small. For never shrinking so other people wouldn't feel insecure around you. And for inspiring others to shine alongside you.

It's all part of your untouchable Munster legacy.

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