By Brendan O'Brien
Donnacha Ryan believes Paul O’Connell could well stretch his playing career towards his fortieth birthday.
The soon-to-be 36-year old Ireland captain will this week undergo surgery on the hamstring injury that ended his World Cup and Ireland Test career, but his former Munster and international teammate believes he is in no way approaching the end of his playing days.
O’Connell was due to join up with Toulon on a two-year deal after the World Cup, but that will now be delayed indefinitely as he faces into months of rehabilitation before he can even begin to think about taking to the pitch for the three-time European champions.
“He's got another two years in his career,” said Ryan on Wednesday when asked about a possible switch to coaching. “He's actually in incredible nick, so he could probably keep going for another five. He's a very smart guy.
“He'll be successful in whatever he turns his hand to, be that coaching or anything else. He's a very keen student on every aspect of life, a very interesting individual. So I think he'd be a fantastic coach if he wanted to go down that route.
"But there's a lot more mileage for him to do in the meantime. I think he'll still be flying through it in another two years' time, so who knows what he'll want to do then?”
Ryan spoke again about how O’Connell had persuaded him to stay with Munster when his career wasn’t going so well and spoke of his disappointment that the last image he would have of him in an Irish jersey would be of teammate being led away from the ground in a wheelchair.
“But he is still, and always will be, a fantastic player,” he added. “He's the best in the world and the best compliment I could pass him is that every time I was playing with him I was never really occupied with my opposite number.
“It was more a question of trying to match the player alongside me and trying to perform the same as he was. I knew that if I did I'd be in a good place. He'll be sorely missed, but he's still a great mate so hopefully we'll see him again soon.”
Ryan is proof that there is hope amidst the gloom of even the most stubborn of injuries.
The Tipperary man missed over a year of rugby due to a frustrating foot problem, but he now stands fit and ready to play an active part in a World Cup quarter-final after O’Connell’s demise and how own struggle from there to here has coloured his approach this week.
“Being out for nearly 14 months gives you a bit of perspective: that something could fall down in training tomorrow. I just take it one step at a time, really. It's important to keep things in perspective and if it happens just be ready for it. That's all I can do at the moment.”
With Mike McCarthy called up, Joe Schmidt still has four locks from which to choose. With Devin Toner certain to start, it just remains to be seen whether Iain Henderson will play alongside him or in the back row. If it is to be the latter than Ryan will make the XV.
He has been here before, filling in for an injured O’Connell. Back in 2013, he was ushered in to the second row during the Six Nations and even called the lineouts, but it was at a time when Declan Kidney’s tenure was crumbling and Ireland were in a bad place.
Is he ready to lead that line again?
“Ah, look, that's a call for the management really. We chat things out and bounce ideas off one another, which is great. We do have a fantastic working relationship, the four of us, and that's the important thing at the end of the day.
“The common goal from a lineout point of view is to win the thing and have good ball for the backs, and if we can do that then we're all winning. It’s about man-management, but from our point of view it's about whoever is playing putting in a performance. That's all I care about.”