Friday 6 December 2019

Tony Ward: Leader of leaders and greatest of the great

Paul O’Connell walks out to the Millennium Stadium pitch last March: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul O’Connell walks out to the Millennium Stadium pitch last March: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

If you are looking for the definition of the word 'great' in Irish sport, then start with the name Paul Jeremiah O'Connell.

I am not close enough to this iconic figure to address him as Paulie. I am not in his inner sanctum of close friends. Yet bump into him, as I do from time to time, and he makes you feel that you are that good friend and that you should be addressing him like those closest to him as Paulie.

Pleasantries exchanged, the big man will be first off the mark enquiring about you and what's going on in your life. It is no charade, nothing put on, just a natural niceness.

A great friend of mine (well up the sporting ladder himself) has long maintained that real sporting heroes should of necessity be nice.

Well when it comes to natural niceness then one of the 'hardest' men in the history of Irish sport possesses that trait in spades. O'Connell is a hard man on the rugby field and in the dressing-room but take him away from that competitive sphere and he is soft as putty.

What Paul the player brought to the table was total commitment every time. Even when he had a bad one, he left nothing behind.

His athleticism out of touch was his trademark but so too his work-rate.

As a captain he was the go-to player for Munster, for Ireland and for the Lions. But it wasn't just the physical aspect.

Indeed, he wasn't a wrecking ball of a ball carrier like Cian Healy, Stephen Ferris or Sean O'Brien, but what he lacked in dynamism in contact he more than compensated through availability, particularly at critical times in matches when the tide was flowing the other way.

And when it came to moral courage he was without peer.

He was the antithesis of the sunshine player. When dark clouds were hovering and opposition momentum gathering, O'Connell the leader was always the man attempting to turn the tide the other way.

I doubt any lock forward in the history of Irish rugby ever carried the ball more.

It is that quality, that moral strength that wins the dressing-room over, because he does what he demands that others do.

Special leaders in different sporting codes have innate qualities that make the dressing-room a special place to be. Their mere presence makes each individual feel better about themselves and about each other prior to kick off, and even more so in the white heat of battle.

O'Connell, much like Ciaran Fitzgerald, Donal Lenihan, Willie Anderson, Keith Wood, Brian O'Driscoll and leaders of that ilk never asked anything of anyone else he didn't demand of himself.

It was that honesty, that humility, that willingness to go the extra yard that ensured so many others followed too.

It is the trademark of a great captain; Irish rugby has been blessed with a few but with this one was the greatest of them all.

The last time I was speaking to him one to one naturally the conversation got around to Toulon and the new challenge ahead. He was excited but apprehensive. Why the apprehension? Because in his own words "save for a Lions tour I have never but never been out of Limerick for any significant length of time".

He loves his home town dearly and by God does the Treaty City love him.

I doubt any other player could have finished his playing time for the provincial side and left with such good will given he was going to join one of Munster's likely opponents.

I didn't expect him to make the move he did when opting to see out his golden days in Toulon. Munster red courses through his veins.

Maybe this is a selfish comment but in a sense I am glad he will see out his playing time as a one club player with the province and in the town he loves so well.

I confess to a strange feeling when seeing him in a Toulon photo shoot despite being still laid up at the time.

He is up there with Mick Mackey and Terry Wogan as the greatest Limerick icon ever, and certainly now the greatest living Limerick man by a country mile.

Thank you for all the fantastic memories.

The leader of leaders and greatest of the great.

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