Social media has been awash with #ThanksPaulie messages as rugby fans around the world paid tribute to the iconic Paul O’Connell.
Paul, Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara were the Blessed Trinity which drove rugby to new heights in this country since the onset of professionalism.
The popularity of the game in Ireland is at an all-time high and we should never forget the roles this trio, and O’Connell in particular, played in that development.
I first played with Paul in 1998 when we were both selected on an Irish Colleges tour to spend a month in South Africa.
I had toured the country the previous summer with the senior squad and thought Paul hadn’t yet made the breakthrough with Munster or Ireland, it was clear then he had an aura about him and was a natural leader of men. Paul was obsessed with his club, Young Munster, and was desperate to make the breakthrough to the first team at the Greenfields and wherever that path would take him.
He kept us entertained on the tour off the field with stories from back home about the likes of the ‘Claw’, Ger Earls and Decky Edwards, but on the field it was clear he was something else.
He was a tall gangly teenager at the time but I never saw him take a backward step. Indeed he the took it on himself to be the enforcer of the team. On that tour, there was a mix-up in the communications regarding our age grade and we turned up for a match in Port Elizabeth thinking we were playing their provincial U21 side only to find out the mammoths in the opposition dressing room were the Eastern Province Police Force selection.
Predominantly Afrikaans and reared on biltong and game meat, these lads had more interest in roughing us up than running after the ball.
But I’ll never forget how Paul’s drive and resilience got us out the other side (in one piece) and with a win to boot.
He is an incredible competitor and was a talented swimmer and golfer in his younger days before focusing on rugby. One of the unusual things about Paul was his appreciation for the amateur game yet he also had an absolute drive for new methods and techniques in the pro era.
He brought that obsession for improvement into his training from day one. I was speaking to one of the Irish coaches last month who said Paul was the best conditioned athlete in the Irish squad heading to the World Cup - some achievement for a 35-year-old. Despite being incredibly up to date and modern he knows rugby is still a game played on emotion and that teams need a collective spirit to play to their potential.
Paul’s team talks are the stuff of legend because he speaks incredibly well. Whatever the circumstances, he always knows how to touch the raw nerve within the group which has the required motivational effect.
He has led many great teams at Munster, Ireland and with the British and Irish Lions in South Africa and yet he is a man without ego.
When I played for Leinster, we had a decent rivalry with Munster. It was easy to build up a dislike for your opposition when the rivalry is so intense but I don’t know a single player that had a grudge against Paul. He was incredibly hard but incredibly fair and a real sportsman.
I remember playing Munster in the old Thomond Park for Leinster in 2006 and I found myself loitering on the wrong side of the ruck. Those days ‘shoeing’ or ‘rucking’ were still allowed by the officials and I was quickly getting the treatment from seven Munster forwards’ studs. Next thing I heard Paul shout ‘that’s enough boys’ and the punishment stopped immediately.
I found myself, or saw others in similar situations during my career, but I never saw something like that happen again. But that is because Paul O’Connell is a one-off.
It is cruel that his international career has finished like this but sport gives very few the fairytale they deserve. He is embarking on a new adventure to the south of France with Emily and the kids and while its not ideal to turn up with a long-term injury, he has been through the rehab process before on many occasions and he will do everything in his power to come back better than ever.
If Toulon are smart, they will integrate him into their coaching staff while he is recovering as he will make an outstanding coach.
I’m looking forward to catching up over a few beers when our paths cross in the not-too-distant future.
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