Paul O’Connell on playing sport as a kid, what it taught him and passing that on to the next generation
“When I was 12 or 13 years of age, I trained more in a week than I ever did in a week as a professional rugby player.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Paul O’Connell was already obsessed with sport before he reached his teens. The former Ireland and Munster legend is one of our most recognisable sporting figures, an icon who transcends provincial loyalties in this country.
We caught up with the Limerick man to chat about his early sporting memories and how he’s helping to inspire a new generation of rugby players with the Aldi Play Rugby initiative. Since Aldi partnered with the IRFU in 2016, the number of kids involved in this innovative primary schools programme has almost doubled to over 100,000.
“It’s called Aldi Play Rugby,” explains Paul. “Before we got involved, there were 68,000 kids involved. There are now over 100,000 kids playing rugby in primary schools throughout the county. About 44,000 of those are girls, which is cool as well!”
“It’s a free programme where IRFU community rugby officers coach primary school kids in non-contact, tag rugby. We supply balls, cones, bibs, tags – all of that. It’s been a massive success. There were 600 schools three years ago and there are over 1,200 schools now and over 100,000 kids."
With young children having access to more screens and digital distractions than ever before, Paul believes that parents need to make the effort to get them involved in sport.
“I have kids now and I have an iPad that they use. It’s very easy for kids to spend an awful lot of time on computers or in front of screens. I think it’s important for adults to show leadership and be active, get their kids out and be active with them. Whatever that is – throwing a ball around or getting them out to their local club to play soccer, football, hurling. We’d love them to be playing rugby but whatever it is.”
Schools also have a role to play in encouraging young children to get active.
“I think that it’s really important for schools to lead as well because my kids generally do what they’re told, but they do everything their teachers tell them. That’s one thing for sure. These programmes like Aldi Play Rugby are great to give kids the right habits.
“You can tell them what to do and they might do it. I think if you show them this is how you need to live, you need to be active, you need to eat well – I think there’s far more chance of us converting them.”
A sporting childhood
Surprisingly enough, it was swimming and not rugby that Paul first excelled in. He swam competitively from a very early age.
“I grew up in the country,” explains Paul. “My parents wanted me to know how to swim, more from a safety point of view than anything. I was sent to swimming lessons when I was four and I ended up a competitive swimmer.
“When I was 12 or 13 years of age, I trained more in a week than I ever did in a week as a professional rugby player. We used to go to swimming before school, from 6am to 8am in the morning, we used to go after school, Saturday morning, Sunday morning – we swam every single day.
“It gave me a great, great discipline. The harder you trained, the better you got. I learnt that lesson from a very young age. It wasn’t from someone telling me. It was from being in swimming club.”
It wasn’t just swimming that taught him life lessons. Golf taught him about etiquette and the integrity involved in keeping your own score. He learnt about teamwork and cooperation from playing Gaelic games for South Liberties or rugby with Young Munster.
“I think a lot of the values that parents find it hard to hammer into their kids will be learnt if they’re part of a team or part of a club so I think it’s really important for kids. It’s not all about winning – it’s about being active, having fun and making friends. If that’s all you get out of it, you’re a winner.”
When asked if any childhood sporting memories stick out in his mind, they come thick and fast.
“I remember when I was six, I went out to the Community Games in Mosney for five days without my parents, staying in a little chalet with five other guys,” Paul recalls.
“We were six, seven and eight. We had to show up for one race a day and for the rest of it, we were in the hurdy-gurdies as you’d call them, or down watching the lads and girls from the rounders team from Monaleen. We’d be down supporting them. Incredible days.
“I remember going to Thornbury in the UK when I was seven without my parents for a swimming gala. I remember going to Dundalk on a bus for an underage rugby tournament for three days and sleeping overnight in a gymnasium – we had to bring sleeping bags and a pillow with us! Incredible fun.
"We played every single sport"
Sport gave him a platform to try new things and see new places and he’s grateful that his parents let him really embrace his passion from an early age.
“I was lucky that my parents were big into sport and my Dad is sports mad. We always gave out to my mother that we never did any colouring in or painting or drawing or none of us can play any music! We played every single sport under the sun. I think it was a very happy, healthy childhood.”
Would he like his own kids to have a similar kind of upbringing and embrace sport with the same enthusiasm that he did?
“Yeah… I’d like if they played a musical instrument though! I’d like if they were able to draw and paint a little bit but yeah, I’d love that. It’s not about being great at sports. It’s about the friends and the exercise side of it, being in a team, being able to handle the winning, being able to handle the losing, and all the lessons and all the mistakes around that.
“I just think sport teaches us so much without ever having to sit down with someone and be told. You just learn it automatically.”
Paul believes his early sporting experiences went a long way towards shaping who he became as a person.
“I think the sports that I played as a child are a big part of my personality now. A big, big part of my personality – all the lessons I learnt. I was just so lucky with some of the coaches and the mentors I had.”
Paul and his wife Emily have three children, Paddy (8), Lola (4) and Felix (1). Lola recently started gymnastics while Paddy is already following in his father’s footsteps by playing multiple sports.
“My daughter’s just started gymnastics and she loves it. My boy plays all sorts of sports. I would say he loves it when he goes, but sometimes he’s not too bothered about going! We shove him out the door anyway.”
The Limerick man recently joined the coaching staff at French side, Stade Français. He jokes that coaching kids as part of the Aldi Play Rugby initiative prepared him for the challenge in unexpected ways. Even an Irish rugby legend can find himself up against it when faced with a crowd of distracted schoolchildren!
“I think when you can teach kids something, you can probably teach people anything because they won’t lie to you. They won’t fake interest. You know straight away if you lost them.”
Aldi Play Rugby are currently giving two primary schools the chance to win €50,000 each towards sporting facilities. Runner up prizes include the chance to win a coaching session with Paul himself and €2,500 worth of sports equipment for a school in each province.
“We’re running a competition whereby two schools can win €50,000 towards their primary schools playing facilities. When you spend €30 in Aldi you get an official Irish Rugby player sticker, the stickers can be collected and used to fill out an Aldi Play Rugby poster. Once the poster is full, you roll it back up and send it back.”
If your school isn’t lucky enough to win a coaching session with the man himself, he has the following advice for any young people who aspire to follow in his footsteps and represent Ireland.
“From a rugby point of view, I think developing your skills is really important. Throwing a ball around as much as you can, or kicking it around, is really important - and not being afraid to take risks.
“When I was young, I was so competitive and so obsessed with winning and losing, I probably didn’t take risks and I probably didn’t develop my skillset as much as I should have. I think when you’re young and you’re not playing for Munster or Ireland yet and it’s not the end of the world if you win or lose, you shouldn’t be afraid to take risks. Throw the ball around, offload, try some fancy things and go out of your comfort zone a little bit.”
For full competition details or to order a poster for your primary school, visit the Aldi Play Rugby website. The promotion will run until April 7, 2019.