Ireland vs England: Evergreen Paul O'Connell is the rock of Ireland

He's the thinking leader with work ethic, spirit and the common touch. Chris Hewett considers the man England must beat first if they are going to win in Dublin on Sunday

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Donncha O’Callaghan, the long-serving Ireland lock who is not quite so long-serving – or, by his own admission, quite so much of a lock – as his blood brother Paul O’Connell, tells an amusing story about events on the otherwise profoundly unfunny Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005. It concerns a pair of tracksuit trousers heading in a southerly direction to the acute embarrassment of their owner: some way short of hilarious on the face of it, but a genuine rib-tickler when you learn that the victim was Alastair Campbell.

For reasons that have never been entirely clear, the Lions head coach Clive Woodward had thought it a good idea to ask the master spin doctor to run the media operation. “After Alastair’s experience with the Labour Party and Tony Blair, he probably thought this would be a doddle,” O’Callaghan writes in his autobiography. “But a group of rugby players on tour is a different challenge to Downing Street.”

He goes on to describe how O’Connell performed the ritual debagging duties in a conference centre full of reporters and television crews, adding: “The story went round that I had done it, yet I hadn’t been in the room. It was like people thought, ‘It couldn’t have been Paulie; it had to be you.’”

Those leaping to the wrong conclusion could be forgiven. If O’Callaghan had a reputation for being a little mischievous, his colleague was generally considered to be a thinking man’s forward: deeply serious, supremely analytical, nothing short of a perfectionist. Yet the capacity to be most things to most men at the appropriate times lies at the heart of rugby captaincy and England are uncomfortably aware that if O’Connell is at his best in Dublin on Sunday afternoon, it is they who might find themselves with their pants round their ankles.


To beat Ireland, they will have to beat their leader first. This conflation of the individual and the collective is not new in the union game: something similar was said of the All Blacks when they were led by Wayne Shelford and Tana Umaga, and of England under Martin Johnson. Yet while O’Connell despises the backward step as much as any player in recent memory he is not a man who goes out of his way to walk on the dark side. All lock forwards fight occasionally. Not all of them fight the good fight.

When the England forwards coach Graham Rowntree, who worked with O’Connell on two Lions tours, was asked for a few thoughts on the man who stands in his country’s way this weekend, there was an honest acknowledgement of his gifts. Then Rowntree dried up. “I’m sick of talking about him because I just make him sound brilliant,” he said.

Another coach well acquainted with the subject did not dry up, although he too hesitated for a moment. “I don’t want to blow smoke up his behind and I really don’t say this lightly,” commented Mark Tainton, who spent a successful decade in the Ireland set-up as kicking coach, “but Paul is a great individual.As a leader, he’s magnificent. He inspires through action – he was raised in a hard school of rugby and understands the requirements when the going gets tough – and he inspires through words.

“It’s rare to find a captain who does both. Some are the strong, silent types; some talk the talk. Paul does it each way. In the dressing room, I’ve heard him speak quietly and calmly, then ramp it up to build the intensity… and then back it all up on the field.

“People believe him when he says something, because they believe in him. I’ve seen him come into the dressing room at half-time absolutely out on his feet, sit down with his head hanging low, breathing so deeply you wondered whether he’d ever get up again. And then he’d stand, look at the players around him and say: ‘We’re not tired, are we? I’m not tired, I can tell you. So let’s go back out there and raise the pace.’ And everyone in the room would buy it, because it was Paul.”

O’Connell is 35 now: he has made almost 200 appearances for Munster, is within touching distance of a century of Ireland caps and has three Lions tours behind him, which puts him alongside Johnson as the nearest challenger to the Ulsterman Willie John McBride, whose record of engine-room longevity in the red shirt will never be surpassed. Rugby union was still an amateur game when a powerfully built, swimming-obsessed teenager from Limerick first clambered over the wall at Thomond Park in search of a free afternoon’s sporting entertainment.

Yet if there has been the odd glimpse recently of the ageing process – when Munster found themselves on the painful end of a European Champions Cup leathering at Saracens last month, O’Connell looked as helpless as everyone else – there is always the possibility of a sudden burst of midwinter spring.

Before the last Lions tour of Australia in 2013, he returned from a long injury lay-off to play his way on to the plane in the course of a single, stunning Heineken Cup quarter-final display for Munster at Harlequins. That afternoon it was difficult to imagine he had ever played better.

“I remember the match,” Tainton said. “It was the day Munster went back to being Munster after a difficult period, and they were able to do that because Paul recognised what was needed in the circumstances and was able to take people with him. And that’s down to his human qualities as well as his knowledge of the game.

“He’s off the scale when it comes to work ethic. Back in the day, when the Ireland scrum-halves would be practising their passing in an empty room at the team hotel, he’d be the only forward demanding to join in. And he’d challenge the coaches rather than simply accept what they were saying, insisting in a positive and constructive way that they justify their ideas. He wouldn’t put up with mediocrity, wherever it was coming from.

“But at the same time, he has always known how to enjoy himself off the field: he was, after all, brought up in the Munster tradition, and those boys are good when it comes to unwinding. As a result, he’s a natural communicator. When the young blokes come into camp for the first time and are obviously in awe of him, he sits them down and spends time with them and gives them the confidence to contribute.”

Both Rowntree and Tainton believe O’Connell will go on to make a mark as a coach. “A coach of international quality, probably,” said the latter. “He has all the credentials: the technical knowledge, the man-management touch, the heart.”

Any such move is some way down the track, however. With a Six Nations title to defend, a top-three Test ranking to reclaim and a World Cup on the horizon, the green-shirted grandee of the second-row fraternity has no reason to think too far ahead.

If Ireland get it right over the next eight months, they could head into the global gathering as the best side in Europe and play their way into a World Cup semi-final for the first time. It would be just like O’Connell, so good at climbing walls as a teenager, to save his greatest ascent until last.