Everyone who had the privilege to interact with Paul O’Connell during his glittering 14-season playing career has a story to tell about the rugby forward who yesterday left the game having made an indelible mark on it as an icon, totem and legend. And each of those personal recollections touch on something very different from the heroic status we have correctly conferred on the man.
Tadhg Furlong’s tale epitomises that paradox, highlighting the man we have rightly lionised over 108 Ireland caps, four World Cups and three British & Irish Lions tours. The young prop, a Test rookie at last autumn’s World Cup, found himself sat in the Millennium Stadium stands next to O’Connell for Ireland’s quarter-final against Argentina.
O’Connell had seen so many great days inside that great arena in Cardiff. Two Heineken Cup triumphs, a Grand Slam success, his 100th Ireland cap, they had all been experienced there yet here he was last October, nine days short of his 36th birthday, his race run as an Ireland player following the serious, excruciatingly painful hamstring tear that would bring not just his Test playing days to an end but, eventually, his whole career.
“We were both in the stand for the game against Argentina,” Furlong, 23, recalled yesterday. “Naturally enough, the camera always kept panning to Paulie. The first time we flashed up on the big screen, he just turned to me and said ‘we made it kid’.”
Humourous, humble, never aloof despite the pedestal on which all who played with him placed him, that was O’Connell in a nutshell.
O’Connell, of course, was once himself the kid, the rookie sharing an Ireland team hotel room with old soldier Peter Clohessy, suffering his Young Munster team-mate’s late-night, nicotine-stained card schools as he tried to steal some sleep ahead of his international debut.
“That week of his Test debut, there were seven Munster players in the pack and I was in the card school and we spent a lot of time in Clohessy’s room,” Munster and Ireland hooker Frank Sheahan recalled. “Paul was rooming with Clohessy and there were nights we were playing cards when Paul was trying to get some sleep in the bed beside us.
“I think Peter Clohessy was Paul’s hero along with some of the other great Young Munster forwards, like Ger Earls, Ray Meehan, hardy boys and I think he looked at the Claw and saw one of the hardest, toughest mercenaries to have ever played the game and with more than 50 caps, which was a remarkable achievement. What was special about Paul was that he took all of those great traits the Claw had for toughness and tenacity and drove it to a whole new level.”
Interviewing O’Connell before his fourth and final World Cup last August, the Irish Examiner took him down memory lane with images from his previous three tournaments. Shown a picture of O’Connell in the surf at Terrigal in 2003 alongside some less than toned torsos belonging to squad-mates who really belonged to a different era, it served as a reminder of how much professional rugby has changed during the lock’s career.
He had made his Ireland debut the previous season alongside Clohessy with Mick Galwey as his captain and played in green for the 108th and final time in the same squad as Robbie Henshaw.
“I think of a player who has spanned the ages,” Galwey told the Irish Examiner last March on the eve of O’Connell’s 100th cap, “starting out playing All-Ireland League rugby with Young Munster 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.
“It’s remarkable to me that he’s winning his 100th cap and his consistency has never faltered, which makes him one of the greats. 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.”
That O’Connell left the Test arena playing as well if not better at the age of 35 than he had been a decade previously is a further testament to the legend. When that hamstring was ripped from the bone on the stroke of half-time against France last October, O’Connell had been performing at the height of his powers, the statistics showed he had hit 26 rucks in the preceding 40 minutes, his impact and influence on proceedings as great as it had ever been. He had lifted the RBS 6 Nations trophy for a second year in a row at Murrayfield last March, his performances sufficient to win him the vote as the player of the championship.
It also convinced Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal to reach for the cheque book once more and add O’Connell to the list of galacticos that had delivered three successive European titles. A 36-year-old second row still possessing the goods to attract the kings of the continent, if that doesn’t tell you enough about the Irishman’s performance levels then nothing will.
Alas, it will not happen. O’Connell’s body can no longer allow it. The Toulon adventure is over before it began but for those who did get to play alongside him, the talk is of the honour and privilege of doing so and for young guns like Furlong the regret they could not have done so for longer.
“I’m a bit envious that I didn’t get more time with him, more campaigns with him, like some of the other lads had,” Furlong said yesterday as Ireland prepared to face France in Paris this weekend.
“He is someone, growing up, that I definitely looked up to. He was a constant in the Irish team, always performing well. To come in here and meet him, play with him, train with him and learn off him was invaluable.
“I can only speak from the experience of a younger lad coming into the squad. Anything you hear about him, anything you hear players say about him, I can only say for me, they are true.
“He just has this presence, a willingness to put a hand around you, say a word, or talk you through a lineout that you weren’t quite sure on.
“The smallest things that made the biggest difference, he was incredibly good at. He will be someone who’ll be missed.”
And not just by team-mates. For those of fortunate to have interviewed or just chewed the fat with the great man, O’Connell was a gentleman, an eager listener and generous talker. And then there’s the supporters, be they in red or green, who paid good money to see him in action. The trophies, the victories, the carries, the tackles. The commitment to the cause through thick and thin. Those are memories that will be cherished for a lifetime.
And to think one man gave us them all. Thanks Paulie.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved