Paul O’Connell injury ruins chance of fairy tale finale in Ireland shirt | Donald McRae

‘However it ends, I’ll feel lucky’ the lock once said, but his forced international retirement is a huge blow for O’Connell and Ireland at the World Cup

I have interviewed Paul O’Connell more than any other current rugby international and so, after seeing him crumple to the turf in agony on Sunday at the Millennium Stadium and then hearing confirmation that his 108-cap career for Ireland has been ended by the need for hamstring surgery, I felt a sudden regret. Of course sympathy should be reserved for O’Connell and an Irish squad that have lost their leader and talisman as they attempt to reach the World Cup semi-finals by beating Argentina this weekend. But, in purely selfish terms, there is some sadness that my chain of O’Connell Test match interviews has ended. In our last conversation, completed earlier this year, the 35-year-old considered the prospect of making World Cup history.

I interviewed O’Connell so often for two simple reasons. The most important is that for the past 10 years he has been a colossus of European and world rugby. Whether playing for Munster, Ireland or the Lions, O’Connell has been a dominant presence at the heart of the scrum, the lineout and as a leader of every team who have followed him either out of the tunnel or into the most decisive sections of yet another epic European cup-tie or Test match.

Much like Martin Johnson, who did lift the World Cup for England in 2003, O’Connell is a galvanising force when the spirit of those around him looks as if it might dip or flag.

The second reason is more personal. Unlike most international sportsmen, who are protected by agents, managers and media liaison officers, it was simple with O’Connell. I just needed to email or text him to ask if we could talk again – whether at his home in Limerick or the more cloistered surrounds of the Hurlingham Club after another long-winded Six Nations launch. It was typical of O’Connell that after first asking me in considerable detail about my latest book research or what I made of some wayward sportsman I had interviewed, he just said “of course” to the predictable interview request.

This year’s interview seems more poignant now. “If you can lift the World Cup, you will go down in history,” he told me in late January. “Look at the English team that won it in 2003 – the only northern hemisphere nation to have ever done that. Those guys are legends. It would be great to fulfil our potential and play to the best of our ability in this year’s World Cup.”

O’Connell was never a flowery interviewee. He was too pragmatic a man. His good sense made him add the caveat that Ireland, especially facing the perennial threat of the All Blacks, remained an “outside chance”. But in the days before he led Ireland to victory in the opening game of this year’s successful defence of the Six Nations championship O’Connell sensed a difference. “For Ireland to win a World Cup you need a load of things to go your way. You need luck with injuries because we don’t have the playing numbers of other countries. But Ireland certainly have a chance of winning the World Cup.”

Talking about himself, a subject which he turned to only when persuaded with some force, O’Connell sounded buoyant. “Apart from a few bumps and bruises I’m on an injury-free run – unlike the last few seasons. A World Cup year makes it particularly exciting and it’s why I’m enjoying rugby more than ever.”

It was different from the more downbeat assessment of his battered body a year earlier. Then O’Connell regretted that he had not played for a French club. Much as he loved having devoted his whole career to Munster, a small part of the big man was intrigued by the prospect of plunging into a different rugby culture. But he knew his body would struggle to adjust.

“Owing to my injury profile I need to be with people who know my body,” O’Connell told me in January 2014. “If you go to a new club you have to make an impression and you don’t want to be stepping out of things and saying: ‘Oh, I can’t do this or that.’ It would look odd. I do all my own stuff in training because I know what best suits my body.

“But playing in France would have been fascinating. It’s a real regret I didn’t do it when I was younger. I’ve only ever lived in Limerick and, while I love it, it’s a real shame not to have played rugby anywhere else.”

It is one of those bitter-sweet ironies that O’Connell’s wish finally turned into reality when, in June, he signed a two-year deal to join Toulon after the World Cup. He felt sufficiently strong to play another couple of seasons for the European champions. O’Connell’s Test career is now over but, unless his surgery is unsuccessful, I will be surprised if he does not try for one last tilt with Toulon. He will not want to end his career being wheeled away on a stretcher while offering the applauding crowd a thumbs-up to let them know he was all right and, this being O’Connell, to thank them for their support.

O’Connell’s Test career began and ended with a heavy blow and a dazed injury. He never stayed down unless he was seriously hurt, which was why it was immediately apparent on Sunday against France that his hamstring had been torn badly. He knew nothing, in contrast, about why he was being removed from the field during his debut for Ireland against Wales at Lansdowne Road in February 2002.

He still made an instant impact as a raw 22-year-old. “I don’t remember it,” he told me years later. “I tackled Craig Quinnell and he knocked me clean unconscious with his elbow. I played on for 25 minutes, scored a try and then, eventually, with seven minutes left in the first half, I came around. I didn’t really know what was going on and so I walked off the pitch. The doctor was asking my phone number and holding up his hand and saying how many fingers? I looked up at the clock and it said 2 minutes 19. I told the doctor: ‘Mick, I’m not coming off after 2 minutes 19 seconds.’ Mick said: ‘There’s 2 minutes 19 seconds left of the half. You’ve played the whole half. You scored a try.’ I argued with him: ‘I didn’t score a try. You’re only saying that to get me to come off.’ That’s when he said: ‘Look, you’re not going back on.’ I saw the video later and I did score but I have no recollection of it”

Most of us will have far more vivid memories of O’Connell winning the European Cup with Munster and the Grand Slam with Ireland. We will not easily forget his battles against Victor Matfield in the bruising and cruel series defeat the Lions suffered against South Africa in 2009 or of him playing valiantly as, four years later, the Lions won the first Test against Australia. O’Connell broke his arm that afternoon and he missed the last two Tests. But he remained a cornerstone of that victorious Lions squad.

His international career would have ended on a glorious World Cup peak if he could have led Ireland to the final at Twickenham on 31 October. Instead there will be no fairytale in this unforgiving sport. “I don’t really believe in fairytales,” O’Connell once told me, “even though it feels like I’ve been lucky enough to live through a few. However it ends, I’ll feel lucky.”

The luck turned against the mighty Munster man at the end. But when he rises from his hospital bed and the hurt fades, I think he will feel fortunate to have enjoyed such a remarkable career. The rest of us are privileged to have watched him from a distance. As for me, I just count those interviews and feel lucky all over again.

Contributor

Donald McRae

The GuardianTramp

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