The Irish rugby nations worst fears were realised soon after the historic win against France in the final pool game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, when Paul O’Connell’s Irish career came to abrupt end after 108 caps.
Inspirational, leader, legend, respected, warrior, brave, greatest ever, one of a kind, true gent, reliable… some of the words and phrases used since the news broke about O’Connell’s Irish career being cut short. What made the big man such a figurehead in Irish Sport? We only have to look at his memorable moments to find out why:
In February 2002, a young and determined Paul O’Connell made his Ireland debut at the “old” Landsdowne Road. Even then, in his first start for his country, he showed his drive and determination by scoring a try, ten minutes after being knocked unconscious from a tackle.
It was fitting then, in 2006, in the final rugby international at the “old” Landsdowne Road, that O’Connell will be credited with the last ever try scored at the historic venue.
That speech in the dressing room
“Fear of God” will ever be associated with Paul O’Connell after the RTE documentary which followed the exploits of the 2007 six nations’ campaign, even spawning a gift grub character with the same catchphrase. Players, past and present, have commented on how inspirational his team talks were and how it made them stand up, listen and how it got them pumped up before a game.
Fellow Irish international Conor Murray had this to say about his dressing room speeches: “He spoke about your performance, the first 10 minutes, your first contact, and your first moment. Win that, try and build on it and go from there. He is an incredible leader and we are very glad to have him”(Independent.ie).
Playing With a Broken Arm
In 2013, while captaining the British and Irish Lions tour, O’Connell was inspirational in their first test. During the game, O’Connell went down with an arm injury. After the physios had a look at him and diagnosed the injury as serious, the norm was for a player to come off the field. But not the brave O’Connell, he turned and went over to the next scrum that was about to be played. He helped the team to a 23-21 victory in that test… more reliable than a Toyota!
He didn’t play in the rest of the 2 tests, but stayed out with the squad to help them in the background to a 2-1 series win over Australia.
What his peers think of him
Some people say that the measure of a person is what their peers think of them and Paul O’Connell’s peers have some amazing things to say about him:
Victor Matfield (South Africa): "I think O'Connell is a fantastic player. He is probably the best player I've played against in my career" (sportsjoe.ie).
Dan Carter (New Zealand): "The guy is world-class; such a competitor and an absolute beast" (sportsjoe.ie).
Sergio Parisse (Italy): "Whenever Ireland have O'Connell in their pack, they have a chance. He is a true leader and drives them in so many ways"(sportsjoe.ie).
Ronan O’Gara (Ireland): "My sadness is tinged with absolute pride having spent 16 years with one of Rugby's greatest competitors. #gentleman #Leader #1ofakind"(twitter.com).
Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland): "This is so wrong on many levels. One of the greatest leaders & players of them all. Inspirational"(twitter.com).
These are only some of the snippets of Paul O’Connells career which made him so revered, respected and admired by fellow players, coaches, and the fans of Munster and Ireland. His leadership, inspiration and reliability will be missed on, and off the pitch in the green of Ireland.