SO everyone's go-to man has called it a day. For a rugby player who gave so much for so long, he deserved to bow out in a gladiatorial manner, writes Donal Lenihan.
Not everyone gets the departure of their choosing — sport is like that — but yesterday’s sudden confirmation that one of Ireland’s greatest leaders has been shunted into the sidings by injury is a disappointing conclusion to a glorious career.
O’Connell developed into the greatest forward to ever wear the green jersey of Ireland, an achievement down to a selfless attitude and a manic commitment to hard work. He is one of the few forwards I have seen who somehow managed to continue developing his game into his mid-30s.
His influence was never greater than when he came back from another long injury setback to inspire Munster to that memorable Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Harlequins at the Stoop in 2013, when the next generation of Munster hopefuls followed his every word and deed. His performance that day catapulted him straight into the Lions squad for the upcoming tour to Australia, despite the fact that he was out of the international arena for well over a year.
Even more remarkable was his performance in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong against the Barbarians in the first game of that tour. The ginger monster’s make-up isn’t the prototype for performing in such exacting conditions but remarkably for someone who had missed so much rugby that year, he was the forward still going strongest at the end of that energy-sapping game.
It confirmed for Warren Gatland that he had hit the jackpot and that O’Connell was back to his remarkable best. Sam Warburton may have been the captain of that tour party but O’Connell was the spiritual leader and go-to man for the players from all four countries.
I am disappointed for him that his playing journey didn’t end in France, as the exposure to other influences, especially the multicultural make-up of the star-studded Toulon squad, would only have added even more to his vast bank of rugby knowledge.
My fervent hope it that his intellectual rugby intelligence, accumulated over years of striving for success with Munster and Ireland and embellished even further on his three Lions tours to New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia will be put to good use, hopefully here in Ireland.
Before that he may be tempted to follow his dream on the coaching front in France and I would strongly encourage him to do so. Munster and Ireland will always be here for him. Whatever he decides to do, he will make a success of it.
He is a remarkable man in so many ways. As a former second-row myself, he is the one Munster forward of the modern era I would loved to have shared a scrum with. What I admire and respect most about him is his attachment to the club game and a recognition that some of the old-fashioned values of the amateur game still have a part to play, not least a pride in playing for where you come from.
It was both fitting and typical of the man that his beloved Young Munster merited mention yesterday as he informed rugby worldwide of his decision to call it a day. He will be missed but hopefully a new chapter opens up on his remarkable rugby journey.
As one door closes another will most certainly open. The big question now is who will be the first to benefit from the remarkable presence this iconic figure brings to any rugby set-up?
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