The sight of Paul O’Connell lying on the turf last Sunday week was uncomfortable for us all. There was a sense of foreboding as the scale of the damage became clear., writes Duncan Casey.
This wasn’t just an injury. A seemingly indestructible man who had driven confidence into the hearts of Irish players and supporters for 13 years had fallen for the last time in a green shirt.
Few would argue with the idea that Paul is one of the greatest leaders Irish rugby has seen. Unlike Brian O’Driscoll 18 months ago, he didn’t get the perfect end to a perfect career. The rugby gods had other ideas. Professional sport is a cruel. The sight of Paul leaving the field on a stretcher was a perfect example.
Leaders are crucial in rugby, on and off pitch. An individual that can mould a huge group of individuals into one cohesive shape is worth his or her weight in gold. Not only is Paul capable of doing this, it’s second nature to him. He has a skillset and personality that could raise morale in the press office of Irish Water. Luckily for me, I got to experience this first hand.
I first met him when I was a lowly sub-academy apprentice, after a pre-season session in Clonmel. He came over at lunch and introduced himself. A simple gesture for him that meant the world to me. Humility is a trait that great leaders share. Arrogance often accompanies ignorance and you won’t find many ignorant leaders in rugby.
You might roll your eyes and say I’m getting carried away. He only shook your hand! The fact is that I became great friends with many people in Munster who never took the time to introduce themselves to me. Not out of nastiness; I’ve done it a few times myself. But it’s no coincidence that the man who did it without fail is arguably the greatest captain in Irish sporting history.
Good leaders combine a matter-of-fact approach with a positive mindset. Needless to say, Paul was an expert at this. You can criticise someone. That’s easy. It takes a lot of savvy to let someone know they’ve messed up without making them feel like a complete moron. If I overthrow a ball in training, it’s the difference between shouting ‘keep it down to fuck’ and ‘great pace, just down a little bit’.
They appreciate the knock-on effect that negativity can have on someone. This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with inexperienced players. If you haven’t racked up much game time, chances are you don’t have that elusive bit of self-assurance that puts you at ease. The last thing you need is a torrent of abuse from someone you look up to as you prepare for a huge opportunity at the weekend.
The dressing room is where leaders really show what they’re made of. Before a seemingly insurmountable challenge, they come to the fore. The first time I heard Paul do this was before a game in Perpignan in 2013. I only made my debut the week before. He spoke about everyone in the circle without using a single name. His ability to address the individual and collective in the same sentence was incredibly powerful. I would have crawled through a mile of gravel to get to Stade Aimé Giral after that.
Leaders step up at half-time, when you need to clamber out of a hole you’ve dug yourselves. My first experience of this was my first European start. Our opening game in Europe wasn’t going according to plan. We were 23-7 down against a Sale side that had torn us apart in the opening 40 minutes. I remember walking down the tunnel thinking ‘how are we going to get out of this?’
To people like Peter (O’Mahony) and Paul (disciples in their own right), there was no need to panic. They cooled our heads and left us in no doubt that we were fully capable of turning things around. We had the ability but needed to make it happen. Sure enough we did, in dramatic fashion. People that can instill this kind of belief are priceless. Sometimes it can more valuable than what they bring to the field.
When John Smit came towards the end of his Springbok career, South Africa were happy to move him to tighthead prop in an effort to prolong his presence around the squad. He wasn’t the best scrummaging tighthead in the country by any means. His influence, like Paul’s, was priceless. Sure enough, he captained the Boks to a series win over the Lions in 2009, scoring the opening try of the first test. Leading by example.
Off the field, leaders are equally important. The best ones know the value of spending time as a group away from the pressure of the rugby environment. It’s pretty obvious to most people that a close-knit squad is likely to perform better. Francis Saili told us it was common knowledge that the Otago Highlanders were inseparable off the pitch. This was thought to be a big factor in them winning the Super 15 Championship this year.
Irish rugby is full of leaders. The skills of players like Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton, Rory Best and John Muldoon are as applicable in every walk of life as they are in rugby.
I’ve no doubt these men will be as influential when they decide to hang up their boots as they are now.
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