Paul O’Connell. Well what can i say about a person that hasn’t already been mentioned. I can only use words that enter my brain straight away whenever i hear his name. Words like Legend, Colossal, Hero, Brave, Respect, Strong and Leader immediately spring to mind. Athletic is another that fits very well in the vocab when describing Paul O’Connell. A man who as a teenager, was a very promising and talented swimmer, but his love for a specific sport lay ahead elsewhere. One can’t help but think what he could have achieved if he did keep on swimming in his early days. With his drive and ambition, he could very well have been up there challenging Michael Phelps for Olympic gold. Instead he decided to go head-to-head with the best second row locks rugby had to offer, and i’m mighty glad he did.
Considering he didn’t take up playing the game of rugby union until the age of sixteen, it never fazed him one bit when playing with and against people who might have had an earlier start to life with the oval ball. Limerick born and bred, he started out with his school Ardscoil Ris, an all boys Catholic secondary school. He played for Ardscoil Ris in the Munster Schools Cup before getting selected to represent the Irish Schoolboys rugby union team and it all snowballed from there. A couple of years later he was selected to represent Ireland at under 21 level, where he first met up with his future second row colleague, Donnacha O’Callaghan. It wasn’t always sports that O’Connell exerted all his energy in. He also completed three out of four years of a Computer Engineering degree in the University of Limerick before deciding to briefly postpone it to focus on his rugby career.
And focus he did. O’Connell was selected for the first time in a Munster shirt on 17 August 2001 against Edinburgh in the Celtic League, which is now renamed the Guinness Pro 12. He went onto reach 174 caps for his beloved province, winning two European Champions Cups(originally Heineken Cup), three Pro 12 titles and one Celtic Cup. In many other sports you here people saying that you should only be judged by the amount of trophies you win in your career and this seems to be the driving force that helps Paul O’Connell to keep doing what he so often does. More proud moments lay ahead as he made his debut for Ireland in February 2002 against Wales, scoring a try in the process. 101 caps later and he’s still producing performances that players ten years younger could only dream of. He has won the Six Nations championship three times, one of those becoming part of a Grand Slam in 2009, and four Triple Crowns in an Irish jersey. He has also gone on to represent the British & Irish Lions on three occasions, in 2005, 2009 and 2013, and he was chosen as the man to lead the Lions as captain in 2009 on their tour of South Africa. For many, this is the ultimate for a Northern Hemisphere rugby player. Knowing O’Connell’s persona, he wants more.
He never seems to get tired of achievement in his rugby career. He’s constantly thriving for more not just from himself but from his teammates around him. He’s not in it for individual accolades and self praise. He takes the ethos that goes with rugby of team work, honesty and passion with him every time he picks up a rugby ball. Just glancing at his facial expressions every time he carries the ball shows you exactly what it means to him. Every chance he gets to pull on an Ireland or a Munster shirt, he’s not just representing his club or country, he’s representing himself, his family, his friends and everything that they stand for. From 2007-2015, he captained Munster tremendously well. Every game he led out the Red Army, he did it with aplomb. I remember back in 2006, Munster were up against Biarritz in the Heineken Cup final in Cardiff. There was a view of O’Connell Street on the big screen in the stadium showing the Munster supporters cheering their team on. The neutral supporters at the game were curious as to whether O’Connell Street was named after Paul O’Connell. That spoke volumes of the aura that goes with Paul O’Connell. Joe Schmidt recently described, in the only way a New Zealander can, that O’Connell has ‘Mana’, which means spiritual power and charisma. That for me sums it all up. Everywhere he goes, he exudes that spiritual power and charisma. He has a presence that demands respect from all corners of the rugby world.
He’s reached a lot of high points in his career, and judging by his big move to the South of France in Toulon, he’s only going to experience more. But the fact that this is going to be his fourth and final World Cup appearance, and gathering all those words together to give us an idea of the kind of person he is deep down, you know that he will be leading from the front when that whistle blows. You know he won’t stop until he can’t give any more. To give it his best shot knowing that his team and his country are behind him every step of the way. It would be the ultimate high and the perfect finish to the career of a man, who has always pushed himself to be the best, if he can guide his green army to victory and lift the William Webb Ellis trophy in October.