Recognising true greatness as we bid farewell to Paul O'Connell, a hero of our time

Following his departure from the stage he dominated for so long, it is easy to fear there may never be another Paul O’Connell. However, he has left a template that others are already following, and that may be his greatest legacy, writes Jack Power
Recognising true greatness as we bid farewell to Paul O'Connell, a hero of our time

WE should be more careful when we choose our heroes. We should choose people we might possibly emulate as well as admire and love.

Maybe we should choose people who don’t so spectacularly, so soberingly, show the great chasm between the mundane, the dish-washing ordinary that most of us wade through every day and what it is to be a once-in-a-generation, life-celebrating, life-enriching force of nature.

But that’s not our choice. The force, the entity, the deity as some would have it, the Obi-Wan Kenobi that gave Paul O’Connell the physique, brains, charisma, empathy, courage, single-mindedness, ambition, peer and family support and, essentially, the wit to combine all those gifts to become a great — by any standard or comparison anywhere, any time — rugby player decrees all of those things.

That Paulie became such an effective leader and a grand broth of a boy, a red-headed example of what we hope Irishness in full, Technicolor blossom, might be was decreed by the gods too.

Most of us just play our bit parts, giving full vent to The Fields or Ireland’s Call, or wearing green wigs and silly hats as needs decree and are lucky — still too hard to say “were” — to have a player and a person such as Paulie to cheer and represent us.

At the moment at which a player guaranteed his place in any bar-stool Irish team of all time, maybe a Lions’ test team too, is forced to retire prematurely — even if he will be 36 on Tuesday — from international rugby at the decisive end of a World Cup campaign, it is tempting to dress terrible disappointment in uncontrolled eulogy.

In O’Connell’s case, though, the challenge is to eulogise convincingly and with the kind of authenticity the brought to everything he did around the game he so loved and enhanced all of his adult life. Make it real, make it count, as he might say.

Just as everyone has a favourite Munster story from the glory days, many played out in Cardiff just as Paulie’s last game for Ireland was, many of us have a favourite Paulie story, one that confirms his place in the lexicon and, maybe as an afterthought, celebrates the qualities we all hope lie latent within ourselves, waiting for the moment they will be needed.

Paul O’Connell makes his way onto the pitch prior to kick off on his debut against Wales in the Six Nations Championship, Landsdowne Road. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Paul O’Connell makes his way onto the pitch prior to kick off on his debut against Wales in the Six Nations Championship, Landsdowne Road. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Mine happened in London and, wonderfully, live on TV for all of England to see.

In the spring of 2013, Paulie was recovering from injury and had been absent from frontline duty for some time. Munster missed him and the blue-at-the-gills naysayers, so happy to dance on an as-yet empty grave, said he was as washed up as Munster. A has-been that should be put out to grass, they harrumphed. There was an edge to that criticism because a Lions’ tour was scheduled for that summer and we all knew Paulie wanted to be on the plane.

On April 7, 2013, Paulie led Munster to play Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins at The Stoop in London in a Heineken Cup quarter-final.

Our English friends, as they so often do because they can’t help themselves, were unintentionally patronising and could not imagine that an aging, rickety Munster, stripped of so many of the players who had trail-blazed across Europe, might unseat their champions.

They anticipated a semi-final place. The English press had also suggested, if not demanded, that up to five members of the Harlequins’ team might be selected for the Lions tour and that club captain Chris Robshaw should lead the tour. At that point, Harlequins were the dominant force in the English premiership.

That Saturday, Paulie gave, on a moderate stage, one of the great performances of Irish sport. He led in a way that brought his young team-mates Tommy O’Donnell and Peter O’Mahony to heights they could not have imagined for themselves but was recognised by the TV commentator, the Welsh and Lions wing Ieuan Evans.

“The Lions selectors will have to look at these lads,” he said.

That afternoon, Paulie, and his sidekick and Irish Examiner columnist Ronan O’Gara gave a masterclass in defiance and how foolish it is to write off people because of their age. Paulie was the impresario, the composer, the conductor, and he led the orchestra from the front as well. He was simply, magnificently irresistible.

5 March 2014; Paul O’Connell, left, and Brian O’Driscoll celebrate with the RBS Six Nations trophy in the Stade De France, Paris. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
5 March 2014; Paul O’Connell, left, and Brian O’Driscoll celebrate with the RBS Six Nations trophy in the Stade De France, Paris. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Paulie, and this verb is used after some thought, scythed through Harlequins and led Munster to another famous victory and made it impossible for the Lions selectors to ignore him.

English hubris was not entirely deflated, though. The day the Lions party was to be announced, a Press Association cameraman was at the Harlequins training ground to take a group shot of their newly elevated Lions. It proved a wasted trip, as none were selected.

Every time a figure as influential as Paulie leaves a stage, the old cliché about Hamlet without the Prince gets an airing but, in this instance, it’s entirely inadequate. It’s more like The Searchers without Uncle Ethan or True Grit without Rooster Cogburn .

The ancient Greeks had an admiration for elitism that is unpopular in today’s world but Herodotus, an historian from the fifth century BC, left us an assessment that applies. Of 100 men going to battle, he said, 10 should not be there, 80 are just targets, and the outcome will be decided by the remaining 10. Of that 10, one warrior will lead the others to victory.

Paulie was that one and, in victory, he showed that we must never limit ourselves, and he paved the way for the generation who will follow.

Over the course of this month, culminating in Twickenham on October 31, they can honour him and show they have learnt the lessons he taught them.

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