Thursday 18 January 2018

Paul O'Connell is not Superman, but he is capable of extraordinary heroics

David Kelly

David Kelly

If adversity really does reveal character, nothing exposes it with more intensity than the most searing of seething sporting cauldrons.

This was a week when that spotlight could char a man in his standing.

22/03/2015
Jamie Heaslip & Rob Kearney with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip & Rob Kearney with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fan Aidan Shanagher 4 from Dundrum after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Paul O' Connell with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fans Michael Reehill 4 from Dublin & Aaron Redfern 6 from Limerick after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fans Michael Reehill 4 from Dublin & Aaron Redfern 6 from Limerick after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Cian Healy & Paul O' Connell with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt signs autographs for supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; The Ireland team bus is cheered by supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell leads the team into the arrivals hall on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Irish fans with the 6 nations trophy after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Fans (L to r) Ruth Fitzgerald from Waterford & Ciara Pykett from Swords during the homecoming of 6 Nations Rugby champions Ireland at Dublin Airport. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip & Cian Healy with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland's Peter O'Mahony takes a selfie with supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Paul O' Connell with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland's Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien sign autographs for supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Sean O Brien with Irish fan Jane O Rourke 7 from Castleknock after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland supporters await the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe, and Rob Kearney on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald are pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland supporters await the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien sign autographs. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Peter O'Mahony takes a selfie with supporters. Photo. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton signs autographs for supporters at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland supporters await the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; The RBS Six Nations Championship trophy is passed around by Ireland supporters at the Ireland rugby squad homecoming. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jamie Heaslip poses for a photograph with students from Newbridge College, Co. Kildare, at the Ireland rugby squad homecoming.
22 March 2015; Eimear McEnroe, from Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan, takes a photo with Jonathan Sexton after the Ireland team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell is pictured with supporter Aidan Shanagher, Dundrum, Dublin, upon the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt poses with supporter Ciara McAteer upon the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland's Jamie Heaslip is pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport with Aaron Redfern and Michael Freehill, Dublin, after wining the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland's Jonathan Sexton is pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport with Patrick Greville, Clontarf, Dublin, after wining the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Not only must one be calm amidst the storm but one must know when to interrupt tranquillity with a tempest; it is the art of great leadership and Ireland are lucky to house one of sport's finest amidst their ranks.

For how much longer Paul O'Connell will do so remains unclear; this may be have been his championship swansong.

If so, nothing will become him like the manner of his leaving the Six Nations stage.

Now we know for certain that Paul O'Connell is not Superman.

He is merely an Irish everyman, an ordinary decent human like everyone else but one capable of extraordinary heroics.

These are not thieved from the realms of comic book fantasy; instead, they are grounded in a ceaseless journey to pour every ounce of himself into everything he says and does.

This is how he leads his country, by exhorting others to follow in his wake. But this can only be done if his unflinching truth off the field is then mirrored by searing honesty once he crosses that white line.

Nine days ago was supposed to be a gilded celebration of the individual and the collective; a 100th cap for Ireland's oldest captain - now, surely, its greatest ever forward player - and the definitive leg of a Grand Slam.

2.34:Paul O'Connell goes over to opening the scoring for Ireland
2.34:Paul O'Connell goes over to opening the scoring for Ireland

But Ireland's resolve had slipped in Wales, even if their totem's tenacity never wavered on a testing day when he proved to be arguably the best forward and back-line player on the field.

Saturday's championship triumph may have involved endless twists and turns like the out of charge rollercoaster described by Joe Schmidt but, for Ireland, and O'Connell in particular, the path was arrow straight.

Experience

O'Connell's knowledge and experience was key during the past seven days as he selectively showed elements of that vast wisdom to those who needed it.

His captaincy was integral but he had to wield it, or yield it, as if it were the most devastating weapon available to man.

Ireland captain Paul O'Connell with the RBS 6 Nations trophy (Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland)
Ireland captain Paul O'Connell with the RBS 6 Nations trophy (Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland)

And so he deferred to those who could draw upon their own resources; others needed reminders of their personally unique abilities. Some players were guilty after last week in Cardiff; others nervous of the task ahead.

Tuesday morning's training session had been so flat it prompted the coach to text each player in an attempt to maintain flagging spirits; however, O'Connell had already begun to do so by congregating his weary troops about him.

"Tuesday was flat," confirmed Conor Murray, one of those world-class players who needed a midweek spur. "We'd built the Wales game up, a potential chance to keep the Grand Slam alive and it was Paulie's 100th cap.

"We were very disappointed with the performance even though we were proud of the way we fought back. But Tuesday was a flat session. Paulie just went through his routine with his few words to us. You know when he talks, he's speaking the truth and he has the experience to back it up. You quickly take on board what he tells you.

"He told us that when we went away for our day off, we have to think about the game and understand how special it could be. Then we came back in on Thursday and had a really good session."

Others were different; Robbie Henshaw had yet to brave his first confession when O'Connell first played for Ireland and yet the oldest and youngest players in this squad are possessed of an intimate, fraternal bond.

Thus, O'Connell deploys his oft-hidden cutting humour; publicly, we see it when he jokes that the celebrations are "like Robbie Henshaw's 21st with all the 80s hits!"; privately, he does it to alleviate the pressure on a player who has yet to learn how to thrive on the edge of fear.

"This was better than my 21st," Henshaw baby-facedly beams. "Although that wasn't a bad night either…

"Paul is just an unbelievable leader, you know. The charisma just oozes out of him. He's an unbelievable player too. And to be doing what he is doing at the back end of his career is amazing. He's just an inspirational guy.

"He led, everyone else followed. He took the bull by the horns during the week and he really stepped it up. We had been really disappointed after Cardiff.

Paul O'Connell with the Centenary Quaich after the match. Reuters / Russell Cheyne
Paul O'Connell with the Centenary Quaich after the match. Reuters / Russell Cheyne

"But that's the kind of guy he is, he took control of us during the week and got us going, he got us ready."

And so Henshaw's interaction with the captain is necessarily different than that, say of a Murray or a Luke Fitzgerald; this is where captaincy requires not merely an iron will but an empathetic flexibility.

"Sometimes he'd talk to you a little," reveals Henshaw. "But it wouldn't all be that serious, he'd have a bit of banter with you and I kind of like that in a person.

"He is not too intense, he knows how to switch off and have the craic. It's not like he would have to sit me down and have a chat about nerves or anything like that. He knew I was dealing with it so well. All in all, he is just the ultimate leader. And the ultimate captain."

Rory Best, himself a leader of men at provincial level, knows the privilege of being amongst the officer corps of this team.

"You know what you're going to get with Paul," says the Ireland hooker, who knows that principles without the performances to back them up are utterly worthless.

Servant

O'Connell is a servant to his leadership skills, a slave to those principles that he espouses and which have marked him all his life.

"What he says is what he delivers. You look at his try there, that showed the crowd he is up for it and it sends out a message to everyone, the opposition but mostly ourselves.

"We were feeling sorry for ourselves but he has to move on and he expects everyone to deliver. He knew that level last week would not win us the championship."

When it came to the final reckoning itself, O'Connell's experience of countless European days provided him with the knowledge to negotiate the day.

"He just talked about performance," said Murray of O'Connell's final interventions before the match. "The first 10 minutes. The first contact. Your first moment. Then go on from there and try to build on it."

If it were in doubt, his stunning salvo as he bounded for the try-line reminded them of it. O'Connell, as well as being Ireland's oldest captain, is now also the oldest player to have scored a try in Irish colours; tries are a rare beast on his CV; his last came in 2006.

But the depth of its meaning provided more than the mere five points upon the scoreboard; it renewed belief in all who supported the Irish cause.

Scottish coach Vern Cotter tells us that every action in a game is a moment of truth. This was O'Connell's declaration of an unbending and unending will.

"He is a leader, he never quits," is Schmidt's description.

The Gospel according to Saint Paul. And his apostles remain a devoted tribe of believers.

"He is obviously an incredible leader and we're very lucky to have him," adds Murray. "I'd definitely like him to stay on, that's not a hard question."

"I imagine that a lot of people will be asking him to stay on," smiles Henshaw.

O'Connell's pride shines through.

"To win a championship any year is fantastic," he says. "I've spent a lot of years with this team and had close calls.

"I think we'd be very proud of what we've done in this championship, in terms of how we've addressed certain things in our performance, in attack, defence and our resolve to come out and produce a good performance like that after losing last week.

"I'm very proud of this squad over the last eight weeks."

O'Connell's pride of lionhearted men had returned the compliment in the best way possible in helping to deliver his country another momentous day of celebration.

Best puffs his cheeks.

"You run out of superlatives," says the Banbridge man. "It's hard not to picture himself going on forever."

Sporting mortality may be inevitable but O'Connell's feats of leadership will remain immortal within the hearts of the nation he so proudly represents.

Some character.

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