Following a week of speculation about a lucrative offer from reigning European champions Toulon, the 35-year-old Munster second row legend yesterday reduced the rugby chatter surrounding his playing future to the bottom line – he has an agreement to play with his province and country until June 2016.
Retirement after this September and October’s World Cup in England is the Irish captain’s only other option and even that could only be achieved with the IRFU’s blessing, and in that regard O’Connell said he was 90% sure of his intentions but not yet in a position where he would feel comfortable disclosing it to the wider world.
Speaking as he launched the new adidas Climachill sportswear range in Dublin, the 101-capped veteran forward poured cold water on reports emanating from France that he was set to sign a lucrative deal that would see him replace one of the departing Toulon locks, Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha, down by the Mediterranean.
“There isn’t anything to tell about it,” O’Connell said. “I mean, from what I read about it, it started about six or seven months ago where there was stuff about Pau in the papers.
“I suppose the fact I haven’t been really clear about when I’m finishing or what I am going to do when I finish probably adds to it. I thought I would be fully sure about what I was going to do by now, but I’m probably not.
“I’m looking to finish out the end of the season with Munster and make some decisions then, over the month of June. I certainly haven’t spoken to Toulon or been over there or done anything like that. There are no options to do anything. I am contracted with Ireland until June 2016.”
That echoed the sentiment on the subject expressed last week by IRFU performance director David Nucifora and asked if that contractual situation ruled out a move to France, O’Connell replied: “Yeah I suppose it does rule it out, really. Yeah, it does.”
Parallels about a potential exit in the manner of former Munster pack-mate James Coughlan to French Pro D2 club Pau last summer, when the No.8 was released from his provincial contract by mutual consent to pursue a beneficial move to the now Top14-bound club were also shot down by O’Connell.
“It is a different situation,” he said. “James wasn’t playing with Ireland, so it’s a very different situation. I’m playing with Ireland at the moment. Well, the last time there was a team picked anyway I was. I am contracted with Ireland until next summer. It is a different situation really.
“I suppose Munster were in a happy situation (with Coughlan), Robin Copeland was coming at the time and there was cover for James. The biggest thing for me is I probably need to make some decisions and give people some clarity about what I am going to do. I thought when (Brian (O’Driscoll) was retiring, he went for one more year, he was 100 per cent sure he was retiring that summer. I suppose it just clears up any ambiguity, clears up any doubts about what he was doing.
“For me, I’m not just there yet. I am about 90 per cent sure of what I am doing but I am not 100 per cent sure.
“I just think if I came out and said ‘this is what I’m doing, I’m retiring on such-and-such a date’ and I have a change of heart, it’d look silly and I’d end up being married to something that maybe you didn’t want to be, so that is where I am at the moment. The decision is still up in the air.”
O’Connell did not dispute that he would be interested in living in France and was in regular contact with former team-mates turned coaches Ronan O’Gara at Racing Metro and Mike Prendergast at Grenoble but hinted that any move for him and his young family may have to wait until after his playing days were over. Yeah, it definitely will have always interested me (playing in France). You’d love to go down there as a young man as well, and you’d love to go down there in great shape. The longer you play and the more internationals you play that becomes increasingly difficult to do.
“The only (Toulon link) I’d be in contact with is Paul Stridgeon, the fitness guy who was the fitness guy with the Lions whom I got on very well with and shoot the breeze with from time to time. And I’d be in contact with Rog every week and with Mike Prendergast every week. That would really be my only contact down there.”
“I think they all really enjoy it. I think they’re probably all homesick as well. I was asked about leaving and why I’d never left and it’s hard to leave your home province. We do have great set-ups here. It’s always been incredibly enjoyable, always brilliantly run, the body gets really well looked after, but — sorry I lost my train of thought there; yeah, I think Prendy and Rog really enjoy it but they are homesick and I’d say they would love to see themselves coming back in time. But they do sing the praises of the experience down there and what it’s done for them and for their family as well.
“Hopefully, that can happen whether it is inside or outside rugby. I’d love to settle in Limerick. But, I wouldn’t see myself settling there just yet.”