Saturday 17 March 2018

English rugby writer pays homage to Paul O'Connell ahead of Ireland-England Aviva showdown

Read the Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary on Paul O'Connell

Ireland's Paul O'Connell
Ireland's Paul O'Connell

Mick Cleary

To get past Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Sunday, England have first got to get past Paul O’Connell. Not so much for what he is as a player, albeit a damn fine second-row forward, but for what he represents.

O’Connell is defiant, unassuming, passionate, resilient and generous. He gives all of himself first and foremost. As he has done for the last 13 years, a tour of duty beyond the pale in this era of attritional, body-breaking rugby, forever steadfast, unflinching and ego-free.

Not for O’Connell a Sachin Tendulkar swansong season, retirement confirmed, and a chance to raise the bat and milk the ovations. O’Connell’s long-running companion-in-arms, Brian O’Driscoll, had his share of that sustained applause last season with notice of his final boot-hanging known in advance.

O’Driscoll has always appeared more at ease in the public eye, not inviting that scrutiny and acclaim, but not disturbed by it either. O’Connell is not of that ilk and while it might be sweeping to put this point of departure down to the Leinster-Munster divide, the city against the country, it is not wholly inappropriate either. Each to their own, not better, just different, both emerald icons of their time.

O’Connell has kept his counsel, with only a nod to the reducing factor of Anno Domini. You might imagine that this famed son of Munster, reflecting that province’s reputation for lack of fuss, would prefer to hear the final whistle at some point over the next six to 12 months, turn on his heel, shake the hands of referee and opponents, and disappear down the tunnel. That’s his preferred style.

 When coming back from a long-standing chronic groin injury a few years ago, O’Connell would wait for the winter-cloak of darkness before donning a hooded top to trot round the local park with former Munster team-mate, Alan Quinlan, to begin those first tentative rehabilitative steps, anonymity as an ally. If only it were so easy, if only those sporting scripts could be penned by one’s own hand. But they cannot.

But if O’Connell will not sing his own praises, there is no reason why others should not do it on his behalf. If O’Driscoll frequently took the headlines, with his remarkable prowess with a try-line in sight and his like-minded unquenchable relish for the fray, O’Connell was often the rock on which those achievements were built.

And so will it be at the Aviva on Stadium. O’Connell, 35, may not have the physical spring in the step that once he had but his presence has not diminished. So much credit has been given to head coach, Joe Schmidt, for the transformation he has effected, with Ireland set to equal their best ever run of victories, 10 in succession, if they beat England on Sunday.

But it is O’Connell that has helped put flesh on those bones, has kept the pack honest and grafting so that Johnny Sexton can direct the team round the park. Schmidt demands high standards, is exacting in his attention to detail, just as the man he made captain has always been. There have been no shortcuts in O’Connell’s journey. Sweat and toil are what it takes.

He is the last of his generation, straddling eras that contained warrior spirits such as hooker Keith Wood, props John Hayes and Marcus Horan, back-rowers, Anthony Foley and David Wallace and those long-standing fellow travellers from the south-west of Ireland, halfbacks Peter Stringer and the spiky Ronan O’Gara.

 O’Connell will bring with him on Sunday all the experience gleaned from adversity as much as from triumph; from England’s Grand Slam pre-World Cup 42-6 Lansdowne Rd shellacking in 2003 (when O’Connell came on as a replacement) to a reversal of that downbeat Irish mood when they halted England’s Grand Slam tilt under Martin Johnson in 2011, winning 24-8. There have been other swoops as well as troughs, all treated in the same manner by this man of equilibrium, his nods to success marked with a certain knowledge that it is the only next match that defines player and team.

O’Connell is not one for self-indulgence, burnished by agonising memories of Munster close-calls before the Heineken Cup was landed; of experiences in the red of the British and Irish Lions, such as 2005 in New Zealand when so much was expected of him and so little on his own admission delivered. Four years later in South Africa, Sir Ian McGeehcan made him captain in much the manner that the celebrated Lions head coach had called upon Martin Johnson to take on the Springboks 12 years earlier because he wanted someone "to fill the jersey".

In practical terms, O’Connell will be at the epicentre of those churning Ireland mauls, or reaching over to disrupt England’s, a rallying figure, a nuisance and a reference point. His line-out play, while defending his own ball or disrupting the opposition, will be key. O’Connell has had his down moments this season, notably for Munster against Saracens, but you know, you just know, that Sunday at the Aviva (née Lansdowne Rd) will be different.

O’Connell’s pre-match speech there in 2011, invoking the fury of the oppressed, stirred his men to great heights against England that day. Such emotional shtick has to be used sparingly. Cheap nationalism is not O’Connell’s way. But esprit de corps is, that sense of togetherness, of selflessly contributing to the cause, most certainly is. O’Connell will not be seeking plaudits on Sunday. But whatever may unfold, we should raise a glass. The Munster lock will not be passing our way too many times again.

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