Paul O’Connell and I are in different places now. He’ll get to where I’m at soon, where most things are in a rearview mirror and frustrations are examined from a wide-angled perspective.
Now, he’s still in the bubble and playing. Intense and wanting it. I’m able to look back on inspirational experiences. He’s looking forward to more challenges. He’s in the zone, trying to better himself. He’s 35 but Paul O’Connell never cruises. Every day, every day, he seeks to improve himself. That’s lip service for a lot of people, but for him it’s not.
I hope, for his sake, he lifts the Webb Ellis in Twickenham next autumn and sails off into the sunset. With the draw that’s possible. But here’s the thing. Today, he will be more excited than many think about his 100th cap for his country.
There are times you take stock and consider what you’ve achieved. He’ll know there aren’t too many more days like this.
When he went into Rala’s room last night and saw the jersey on the rail, maybe he had a little peep just to see what the three numbers on the jersey look like for Cap No. 100. A feel of the collar and the different shade of green with ‘100’ on the bicep.
Few will get the privilege of seeing that. The public Paul wouldn’t be the private Paul. The public have a perception of him as a player but the person you see is very bland in how he replies to media questions.
Hearing for 13 years what he says to his players, believe me it’s very different. Very inspiring, enthralling. I could be here a week writing a tribute but my words or anyone else’s won’t do him justice. That’s said a lot about people. Some of it is myth. This is reality.
That’s the beauty of getting to know the character behind the player. There are plenty of light moments, that’s what appeals — his ability to recognise the moment. That ability to know when to encourage a player, but also when to bring him down to earth.
Paulie is a very rounded person, he doesn’t scare players during the week — he inspires team-mates beyond belief for the five or ten minutes in the dressing room before you go into battle. Rugby’s changed a little bit now, it’s more technically shaped, but where Paul delivers more than anyone else is his ability to fuse strategy and emotion.
His persona, the unspoken sense in the dressing room that people only deserve your ear when they perform. That’s beat in players. He would give dagger eyes to those who didn’t play well at the weekend.
Unless you’ve done the business on the pitch, you have no right to talk in the dressing room. You earn the right to talk for Munster and for Ireland.
Otherwise, be quiet and work. It would be inexplicable with Munster for the two of us — or any of the group who were together over a long period of time — not to grow close. But if there was a better player coming in, you wanted that player picked.
That might create a difficult conundrum because you have a loyalty built up in the trenches over a long time with a certain core. But a young player with a lot of potential can bring something extra to the team and occasionally, we might have got asked for views on the selection.
You had to do what’s right for the team. Paul always did that and there was never any looking after buddies. It was looking after the chances of winning at the weekend. That’s what his peers also admired, whether that was having Doug Howlett in the team or Ronan O’Mahony. If you’re in sport, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
That’s based on an old school rugby value system he cherishes. Pride, loyalty, work-rate. You felt it more on those nights when Munster played an English team at Thomond Park. He gets such satisfaction from representing his local team, performing in front of his own family. Anyone who played in a team with Paul O’Connell appreciated what playing for your family means. That is sometimes overlooked in professional sport. He obviously couldn’t use it every time but in one or two of the crunch periods every season, he would always relate it back to representing friends and family and doing whatever it takes to extract a performance from you in front of those people.
The task I’ve been set is to enrich the profile of a real person the public only see glimpses of. So much of what Paulie is about comes down to his consistency of preparation, and his desire to find the edge that allows him squeeze out the last drop of his ability.
In the 90’s Ireland didn’t win many games, in the noughties, it took a while for Munster to find the formula too. A lot has changed now, and we’ve become conditioned to winning. But there was a group of players pushing standards and pushing standards the most would have been Paul O’Connell.
If he does something, he is doing it for a reason. There are so many box-tickers in rugby today — he even hates that expression — but Paulie has always taken pride in what he does. He would be very close to his strength and conditioning team.
For him to preach in the dressing room, he feels he has to be the best in the room. That unquenchable hunger for getting things right, no matter what the personal cost.
He will challenge everyone and anyone to provide him with the answer he believes will take the team in the right direction. He will place demands on the coaching staff to be on top of their game for the team to perform.
Whatever he got into in life, he has an overwhelming urge to master it, and it doesn’t subside until he has. He has serious discipline, from the swimming routine at a young age and he was a very serious golfer, but I don’t think he saw himself getting to a world level at those sports. So he said ‘cut’.
Video study and forensic analysis are part and parcel of the game now, but have been part of Paul’s preparation for a decade and more. He has deconstructed opposition line-outs and game-plans. And the story of him learning Afrikaans to figure out the South African line-out calls is true.
I never saw Willie John McBride play, but he is the player Irish rugby usually name-checks when the debate turns to charisma and leadership. What will they be saying about Paul O’Connell in fifty years?
In Pretoria six years ago, he had the opportunity for immortality as captain of the Lions. But in that second test, I destroyed that dream for him, giving away the winning Boks penalty which Morne Steyn kicked from 53 metres. Paul was captain, it could have been his biggest achievement in the game.
Coming off the field, he had the respect and decency, the greatness, to put his arm around someone who just wanted his world to end right there. He was thinking of me when anyone else could have said ‘what were you doing there?’
On the flight home from that tour, one thought kept rebounding, something Marty Williams of Wales said to me. I’d have huge respect for Williams, a man who has achieved plenty in the game. But the awe in which he held Paulie was remarkable. For him to say O’Connell was the best captain he’s played under said plenty. And that was after just six weeks. I’ve had the privilege for 15 years.
They say you take a bit of everyone you’ve experienced into your coaching career. It’s too early for me to contemplate what part of Paulie I need. Because I need all of him, sometime in the future.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK WHEN YOU HEAR THE WORDS ‘PAUL’ AND ‘O’CONNELL?’
JAMIE CUDMORE (Clermont, Canada lock)
If I have to pick one word for him then it would have to be gentleman. He embodies the ethos of rugby and how it should be played. I don’t remember the first time I played against him, I think it may have been for Canada against Ireland but I do know that we have had some battles over the years; certainly one in 2008 when I was unjustly sent off and a couple more recently, this season.
But every time, no matter what has happened out there, he is the first to chat afterwards. I make my own wine, one is Red Card and one is Yellow Card. When Munster lost in Clermont he was still up for having a photo with me and the two bottles. He is a true gentleman; we ended up having a long talk about life in general that day.
That is what I love about rugby, that even in this professional age you can stretch beyond your club or your country and make connections with people. I gave him a couple of bottles of wine which I hope will help to keep that rugby ethos flowing.
JEAN DE VILLIERS (South African International and former Munster player)
Respect. I have nothing but massive respect for Paul. Not only is he an unbelievable player, but he is even a better human being. I was very fortunate to spend a season playing with him at Munster and even though he was out injured for most of my time there, I got to know him away from rugby.
The beers and laughs we shared will stay with me forever. During that time, he became a dad to young Paddy and now he’s a father of two, and a great one at it. Paul will go down as one of the all-time legends of Munster and Irish rugby – a player who has proven over and over again to be one of the best in the world and someone who has earned the respect of the rugby community around the globe.
When I think of Paul, my time with him at Munster obviously stands out, although we’ve also played each other quite a few times in Tests. In my mind, he is one of the legends of world rugby.
ANTHONY FOLEY (Munster & Ireland, current Munster head coach)
Honesty. About 20 things jump into your head but the honesty he brings to the jersey is something that makes him the player he is. Even if he’s making mistakes it doesn’t stop him trying harder.
He’s got an honesty around what he has to deliver for the team – I remember being involved with Ireland against France in 2013 when we drew 13-all in Paris and he played most of the second half with a damaged knee but you wouldn’t have thought it.
It will be hard to fill those boots and hopefully that won’t be for another few years but it’s recognised throughout rugby, that honesty and endeavour in him.
MICK GALWEY (Munster & Ireland)
“I think of a player who has spanned the ages, starting out playing All-Ireland League rugby with Young Munsters in a tough pack alongside Ger Earls, the three Clohessys, Paco, Peter Meehan, coming on to the Munster team with me and then winning his first Ireland cap (when Galwey was captain). It’s remarkable to me that he’s winning his 100th cap and his consistency has never faltered.
He made a success of the professional era and he’s probably the only professional left to have played AIL when it was at a meaningful level.”
RICHIE McCAW (New Zealand World Cup winning captain)
A competitor. He is someone who I have a huge respect for how he plays and also how he carries himself off the field. He is consistently one of the top second rowers in the World and you know you have to be on your game around set piece time when you come up against him. Paul is a top man who has been the heart of the Irish team for a number of years.
TONY MCGAHAN (Ex-Munster coach, now Melbourne Rebels)
Security. He’s a winner and a standard bearer but having been in the same environment as him for seven years, if you see him standing beside you before a game he brings you that security that things are going to be okay because he’ll be leading us from the front.
He has an unbelievable presence and, for younger players, he’s like having a father beside you in a tough environment. He makes team-mates want to play better than what they are probably able to deliver themselves. That gives you the security, a sense of comfort that things are going to be okay.
PASCAL PAPE (Stade Français, France lock)
“You want one word for Paul O’Connell? Okay, I give you guerrier. A warrior. He is someone who is totally committed from the first whistle right until the last. In the line-out, in the scrum, in the loose, he never stops and he gives you nothing.
"Mentally he is very strong and never takes a step back. I made my debut against Ireland in 2004 and he was their captain that day; he hasn’t weakened in those 11 years whether it has been for Ireland or for Munster. He is just as strong and never seems to tire. He has had an immense career. He is a great leader.
"A lot of Ireland’s success over the last ten years was put down to Brian O’Driscoll but Paul is equally responsible. If O’Driscoll was the shop window, O’Connell was the fond commerce, the guy at the back of the shop making it happen, the business brain.
"I have had many great games playing against him but I have never played alongside him. I would like to. Maybe for the Barbarians; it would be exciting. The other thing I like about him is that he is humble.
He always has great respect for his opponents and that, for me, is always the mark of a great player.”
GRAHAM ROWNTREE(Lions assistant coach, 2009 and 2013)
I’ve just got so much time for Paulie. He’s such a pleasure to work with. He’s so diligent. After training he’s asking, ‘how do I do that tackle? Show me how to do that.’
He’s done everything you can in the game, but he’s still pulling players to one side after training. Paulie has always been a pain to play against. The only time he’s not been a pain is when he’s been injured.
People talk about a revival from him but to me he’s been a constant driving force in the Ireland team. He drives standards and intensity. He has never dropped off in terms of standards. I’ve got so much respect for him and he will be a great coach. Hopefully not too soon as I’ll be coaching against him!
FRANKIE SHEAHAN (Munster & Ireland)
Orator. Paul was able to have the whole room in the grasp of his hand and then be able to go out and back it up. I think he learnt a lot of his oratory skills from Mick Galwey, who was a fantastic speaker.
A lot of people can roar and shout and give great team talks and there’s some captains who might not be able to give a good speech but who can excel on the field but to match fine oratory with a performance to match, Paul would be very unique to do both. He was able to do as he said beforehand by going out and smashing it on the pitch.”
SHANE WILLIAMS (World Player of the Year 2008, Wales & Lions)
What a captain should be. I’ve had the honour of touring and playing with the big man and he’s a legend. On the field and in the dressing room, he is the embodiment of what a rugby captain should be.
He’s a huge physical specimen but is so well spoken. He doesn’t scream and shout. He’s articulate, well-mannered and everyone listens. Thankfully I’ve never been on the wrong-end of a grilling from him. I would have run a mile if he had.
He’s also a great tourist off the pitch. We shared a room and he’d even wake me up with coffee, what a roomie! And given the difference in size between us, I wouldn’t dare tell him in the morning that he snored!
He will stand alongside Willie John McBride among the legends of Irish rugby. I can’t remember seeing him have a poor game and I’m sure, being such a competitor, that there will still be plenty more games to come.
ALUN WYN JONES (British & Irish Lions Test captain, 89 Wales caps)
Team-player. O’Connell is someone with whom you associate words like iconic and talismanic but he is the ultimate team player.
I remember he said it was the job of a tight-forward to make other people look good and he has been doing that for Ireland since he has had the jersey.
That highlights his drive and determination for the team above any individual glory. I’ve been fortunate to play alongside him on a few occasions in some pretty big games and he is all for the team.
He doesn’t speak for the sake of it. There is meaning everything he says and has a CV that speaks for itself.
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