‘I like reading about the Kilkenny hurlers’

Johnson and Dallaglio said the Lions Test series win was the pinnacle of their careers. So Paul O’Connell recognises how much is riding on today’s clash against South Africa in Pretoria. He discussed this and more with Edward Newman

WE ARE sitting in a business conference room of the Castletroy Hotel, the afternoon before Munster’s last game of the season. The buzz and the light had gone out of their campaign after the Heineken Cup defeat to Leinster, but life goes on for Paul O’Connell. The Lions tour to South Africa is the only show in town now and everyone wants a piece of Paul.

“I think definitely a lot more people recognise you, and there’s been an incredible amount of media stuff. But in Limerick things are pretty much just the same,” he smiles.

Young Munster honoured O’Connell and Keith Earls, and he returned to a place where he made that first lineout leap, that first catch before embarking on a road to super-stardom.

“It was a fabulous night actually. I made a speech but as much as it was a night honouring myself and Keith, it was a night where I could thank the club as well for everything they’ve done for me. I’ve had a lot of coaches over the years but it must be great for coaches to see a player of theirs going on and playing for Ireland and then getting selected for the Lions. Sometimes coaching kids can be a bit of a thankless job. I think that’s probably thanks for them when they see a guy they’ve worked with as a young fella play at the top level.”

Being Limerick’s most famous sporting son has its pressures. But contrary to what people may think, whether out shopping or in a café, he’s not bothered if people stop to say hello or want to shake his hand – “not one bit” – but there are times and places when he feels a tad uncomfortable.

“A lot of charities need profile and right now the rugby players are the guys they’re all coming to. It’s very hard to say no to a lot of those people. So when you do say no, you don’t feel the best. These people might do hours and hours of voluntary work and then you’re brought in to stand in for a photo – that just feels a bit weird to me.”

He adds: “Or else when you’ve lost a game and people are still patting you on the back – that’s when I just kind of feel a bit awkward. That’s when it bugs me a little, those little things.”

Ironically the place he feels most at ease is at training, though stories of the burning intensity he brings to Munster sessions don’t quite fit with this picture. Training is the last place one would think Paul O’Connell – who appears constantly on edge – would go to relax. “If I’m going rugby training, doing my weights or my video analysis, massage or physio, to me I’m switched off there because I’m not worried about anything – that all comes easy to me. I enjoy doing all that stuff.

“When I’m in the gym with six or seven other lads and training, that’s when you’re at your most relaxed because it’s great fun. We’re all in the same buzz, there’s no hassle about tickets – I think that’s when it’s most relaxing when you’re really stuck in the middle of it; there’s no phone, no distraction.”

O’Connell is aware of the Superman analogies that have shadowed his every move on the rugby pitch but there are some things he doesn’t have the answer to. Once he did a lifestyle interview and was asked how he might solve the ills of the current economic climate. “It’s hard when you’re asked your opinion on things that aren’t even related to rugby,” he admits. “Just because you’re good at rugby, (it seems) you must have a deep and meaningful answer for everything. I feel a bit weird in that situation – there are people who are unbelievably qualified for that. Because you’re high profile and asked to give an answer, that’s when I feel a bit awkward.”

As he settles into life on the road with the Lions, the media circus is something he would not have encountered as captain for province or country. And there was always the fear that the constant stream of press conferences, meet-and-greets he must attend might affect his game.

“I’ve thought about it, but I think the thing is not to let it bother me. As long as I’m doing my training, as long I’m relaxing getting a bit of time to myself over there… I got a letter from Syd Millar (former Lions player and coach) saying to make sure I get some time to myself. As long as I’m getting that, it doesn’t bother me. It’s a big honour, a few responsibilities go with the honour. It’s going to be part of the job, I know there’s going to be a lot of media work, a lot of functions and all that crack, it just has to be done. It’s all part of the job.”

THERE has been no personal assistant by his side 24/7 or an Alastair Campbell-type figure prepping him ahead of another appointment with the Fourth Estate. That didn’t go down well on the last tour in 2005; instead the Lions camp under Ian McGeechan purported to be a more easy-going environment, one he favours.

“Realistically we’re left to our own devices with the media. I think that’s a good thing as well – it lets peoples’ characters develop a little bit. If there is a bit of scandal (on the tour), it’s not the end of the world. Rather than people being managed all the time, I think you’ve got to let a person’s personality develop a little bit, let them have opinions. Sometimes it will get people in hot water. If everyone is saying the right thing all the time, no one has an opinion… you really do need personalities develop especially in such a short space of time.”

A newspaper asked whether he’d be interested in writing a column on tour but O’Connell politely declined. At the last World Cup, he had difficulty trying to articulate his thoughts amid a constant swirl of rumour and conjecture around the Ireland camp. “I liked it, but it was hard because we were struggling over there obviously. It’s very hard to write a column then; it’s something I’d like to do in the future again and it’s something I wouldn’t like to do half-hearted – everything you do, you want to do it well. It was hard when we were struggling over there in the World Cup, it was hard to fill the piece at times. People were asking what had gone wrong and we didn’t have the answer.”

An avid reader, especially of sports books – Friday Night Lights is one of his favourites – he packed a lot into his suitcase for South Africa. Lying amongst the books are The Wire and Entourage box-sets as well as his laptop. He does read newspapers, and of late has taken a particular interest in the story of the Kilkenny hurlers.

“I really like the in-depth interviews, the big interviews – even though guys tend to be cagey – where you get a small bit of an insight into a guy that has come back from the brink. I like reading anything about the Kilkenny guys at the moment – they’ve gone to the top and they keep going further and further. Interviews are really the thing for me.”

Casuals were also packed into his case. He claimed he’d make time to be just Paul O’Connell the person and not Paul O’Connell the Lions captain, though it’ll be difficult in a rugby-obsessed environment.

“Sight-seeing is something that’s very difficult to do, but activities like shark-diving, where you’re out there as a group, on your own where there’s no distractions no big walking around, you can relax and enjoy it. It’ll be important to do things like that, to switch off completely and relax.

“It is hard as well – you’re there to play the three tests and to perform as well you can, so it’s a question of finding that happy medium. People talk about the Lions experience and being able to travel, and see things and all this. But these games have become bigger and bigger now, guys just really want to perform.”

The days following Munster’s exit from the Heineken Cup he describes as some the hardest he’d had to endure in a career of so many highs. The team sat down and watched their semi-final display against Leinster and couldn’t believe what they were looking at; it wasn’t them in red jerseys. “It was very hard to watch. While the losing to Leinster thing hasn’t been the thing that has bothered me – it’s just in a year when we’re playing so well, so in control of everything we were doing, we just didn’t perform on that day.”

Despite last Saturday’s first Test loss in Durban, O’Connell believes there’s plenty still in this series. Would turning it around now be a career highlight?

“I don’t know, you gotta see when it happens. I’ve seen two interviews with (Lawrence) Dallaglio and (Martin) Johnson where they said it’s the pinnacle of their career.

“Here you had World Cup winners, guys that won their domestic leagues and Heineken Cups in the same year. World Cup winners. Grand Slam winners and they’re talking about the Lions in 1997 being the pinnacle of their careers. I think that says a lot – these guys don’t throw out things like that willy-nilly.

“Ask me at the final whistle of the last Test if we’ve won it.”

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