PREPARE FOR LIFT-OFF

First it was swimming, then golf. Finally he found rugby, a sport that embraced his passion and remarkable athleticism. Now, with Ireland matching his own world class credentials, Paul O'Connell tells Vincent Hogan why they can go one better than last year's Triple Crown and win the Six Nations outright
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The Independent Online
Away from the jamboree, he is a deception. Tentative, watchful, self-contained. Like a race-horse on wet cobbles, he has an ungainly quality. A sense of frustrated power. Of muffled thunder. Just a murmur of unspoken edge.

In civvies, Paul O'Connell looks out of context. Bespectacled and soft- spoken, he apologises for the tea even before the kettle boils. Too much digging in the estate has soured the water. "Have to boil it twice," he says. "Probably taste putrid. Sorry about that."

The warrior within is utterly dormant now, but not the athlete. High, horizontal shoulders stretch the lining of his Munster fleece and his hands look vaguely out-sized. There is a slight, lugubrious crouch to his comportment too, but the voice is a lovely, un-precious Limerick drawl.

At 25, O'Connell is a rather serious rugby player - a hard and indefatigable young lock forward, the whetstone for a decent Irish pack and, potentially, the manifestation of blunt resolve that Sir Clive Woodward will lean heavily on in New Zealand this summer.

He is, in many ways, the epitome of a new Ireland. Smart, confident, prepared. His words roll out in flat, impassive sentences, flavoured with the occasional sardonic gust. Ireland's sportsmen and women traditionally tip the forelock when compliments fall their way. They perfect what is termed locally "the poor mouth". This aversion to expectation is deep- set and nationwide. But rugby is beginning to break free.

Last season, Eddie O'Sullivan's team won Ireland's first Triple Crown in 19 years. This time, the team believe they can go even further and secure the Six Nations Championship itself. They believe it and they say so.

"If we keep running away from it," O'Connell says, "trying to talk ourselves down into underdogs, you never know when the moment might come in a match where there's a chance of winning it, but we're still thinking like underdogs.

"To be fair to Drico [Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's captain], he keeps emphasising that at team meetings. He's always saying `I want to be under pressure. I want to be the favourite. Because that's what I think we are. I think we can be the best'.

"It's great when you have a leader with that kind of confidence. I think we're right to be confident. We shouldn't be shying away from it and trying to talk ourselves down. Because we're definitely in with a shout for this Six Nations."

You could document a thousand reasons why they might not be, of course, but the point is that Ireland won't fail through insecurity. O'Connell personifies the attitude that they will be bringing to this Championship. With England and France due to visit the grimy old airing cupboard of Lansdowne Road, O'Sullivan and his men see opportunity in every fixture.

O'Connell's status within the Irish camp is remarkable, if only because he effectively has the experience of a mere two championships in his arsenal. He got his first cap against Wales in February 2002, but missed that year's autumn internationals and most of the following year's Six Nations through injury.

Yet he was included in the French magazine l'Equipe's world team of 2004 and, such is the presumption surrounding his entitlement to a Test place with the Lions that some have even mooted the possibility of him travelling to New Zealand as captain.

His story, then, is rooted in the improbable. Take the greatest day in his club's history. Young Munster are a hard, largely working-class club who famously won the All-Ireland League in 1993. O'Connell was in Dublin the day they took the silverware, but he wasn't at Lansdowne Road. He was swimming in a gala at King's Hospital. His father, Mick, dropped him at the pool and carried on to the stadium. That evening they talked about little else on the drive home, the young O'Connell hungry for detail of his club's victory over St Mary's.

That absorption in swimming is a part of his past that he regrets now, particularly for the tyranny of pool-sessions at dawn and the way the discipline required tended to exclude all else from his life. O'Connell was a genuine talent in the pool and for a time he harboured hopes of making it to the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

But by the age of 14 he had "hit a wall". He was getting quicker, just not getting quick enough. That was when he took up golf and pared his handicap down from 28 to four in just three years. He thought, albeit fleetingly, that a professional career might be a possibility, then compromised by targeting one of the biggest amateur prizes in Ireland - the South of Ireland Championship in Lahinch.

It never happened. By the age of 17 he was drawn back to his friends in rugby - he had played mini-rugby at Young Munster - and quickly made the Senior Cup team at Ard Scoil Ris. In April of 1998 he became the first player from the school to be capped for Ireland. v

c It was, you must understand, the daftest of good fortune.

O'Connell's recall of the national trial is typically self-deprecating. His immediate opponent that day now plays in the AIL, and O'Connell remembers their battle thus: "Lifting by the legs in line-outs had only just been brought in. And the guy who was lifting me, Nicky O'Connor from Clongowes, was lifting me by the legs.

"But my direct opponent was still being lifted by the shorts. If it was the other way around, I'm convinced he'd have cleaned me out. But I nicked two or three line-outs off him and that's what got me on the Irish Schools team. When that happened, I thought `Jeez, I might as well give this a lash'. So I went on the weights that summer."

Perhaps that last line hints at the essence of the boy. He may see himself as the luckiest kid since Charlie got the golden ticket for the chocolate factory, but that amiable, "I was lucky" approach is underpinned by an understanding that talent without commitment is the DNA of the dilettante.

Since his carefree golfing days, he has painstakingly built his frame up from 14 stone to a hard-packed 17 and a half. His change of body-shape has hurt his golf handicap, which is currently seven "but climbing", and the smart professional structures in place in Irish rugby have rendered him a virtual absentee from his club.

O'Connell doesn't often get to Greenfields these days and he admits that the last time he even wore the black and gold jersey was against Dolphin in the AIL "around March 2003". Yet his love for the club is palpable. When he talks of '93, it is with an almost evangelical zeal.

"That pack was an unbelievable pack," he says. "The Clohessys, Mark Fitz, `Paco', Peter Meehan, Ray Ryan, Declan Edwards, Ger Earls. They were a savage pack. Tough men."

His own toughness he attributes to a childhood spent "mixing it" with two older brothers. Justin won a Munster Senior Cup medal with Sunday's Well in 1994, but it was Marcus, almost two years his senior, who became the constant litmus test.

"Anything that was ever thrown at me when I went outside the door was nothing as bad as what me and Marcus used to do to each other growing up."

Others have invested along the way. His respect for old Munster soldiers like Peter "Claw" Clohessy and Mick "Gaillimh" Galwey is unambiguous. Often he has been spellbound by their stories of amateur days and night- time excesses that seem unimaginable in the puritanical and professional modern age.

He is a voracious reader of rugby autobiographies too, "though most are only all right", and is incredulous at the way things used to be. "I love the stories," he reflects. "But I just can't figure out how you could go out and drink pints the night before an international.

"I mean, I was reading Neil Back's book and he was making the point that if you took a drink of water during a match it was seen as a sign of weakness. Hearing stuff like that I find incredible."

His favourite read was a book by two former All Blacks, Walter Little and Frank Bunce - "that was kind of cool" - in which Bunce revealed that his fittest period as a rugby player was that which coincided with his day job as a bin-man.

It's all so different now, with the landscape cluttered with nutritionists, video analysts and psychologists. The physicality of the game has been ratcheted so high that players who stay competitive at the highest level in their thirties v

c are now considered to be some kind of exotic creature.

O'Connell is comfortable with the heat of Test rugby, undaunted by the fury. The first game of a rugby season tends to leave him feeling "like a man of 90" but, as the acclimatisation grows, his body settles and he grows to relish the conflict.

"It is very physical," he concedes. "But I look at hurlers, especially in the big games where guys are psyched to the gills. I look at the hurlies flying and some of them aren't even wearing helmets and I can't understand how they do it. I look at a fisherman, going out to sea for three months at a time and I think `Jesus, how can he do that?'

"But it's whatever you are used to. And this is my job. Remember a guy might be playing just as hard as I am in the AIL, but he has to go home afterwards to mind the kids and get up the following day for work. Me? I might go for a swim the following day, let the body recover. Go back to bed for a couple of hours. Maybe go in the next morning and have a massage.

"That can't be too bad, can it?"

O'Connell knows that Ireland will have to play smart in this Six Nations. Last season, he was made captain - in O'Driscoll's absence - for the season's opener in Paris and Ireland were soundly beaten. The next game was against a fancied Welsh side in Dublin.

"That game was make or break for us," he reflects. "I remember guys getting stuck into each other that week in training. There was a real edge and niggle to it. Wales were resurgent. Some people had them as favourites. But we blitzed them, tore them apart. And that performance set up the season for us."

Twickenham, of course, defined that season. The victory against the world champions was built upon a commanding line-out performance from the Irish, in which they took an astonishing 11 English throws. O'Connell's recall of the day is strictly unemotional, though.

He suggests that England's difficulties in the line-out were largely "of their own doing" and that the absence of Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson left them especially vulnerable. "This time, they're going to be so mad to get that right against us" he suggests. "We have to realise that. Teams are going to be chasing our line-out this year."

O'Connell acknowledges that the trip-wires lie everywhere for Ireland. And he is deeply loathe to talk about the Lions tour in June, sensing how presumptuous such talk must seem to other candidates for the second row.

But a final question indicates the scale of the Limerick man's ambition. How would Paul O'Connell like to be remembered?

"I'd like to be remembered for winning stuff," he says, impassively. "Not just for being a good servant to Munster or Ireland. Winning a European Cup, a Grand Slam and a World Cup would be ideal. Maybe they aren't all achievable.

"But I'd hate to think that because we're Irish, because we haven't a tradition of it, that we didn't at least give ourselves the chance. Why shouldn't we win those things? Because we're Irish?

"I just don't buy that."

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