Paul O'Connell: The jolly green giant-killer with lofty ambitions

The Irish lock tells James Corrigan about a meteoric rise from climbing over the wall to watch Munster to being nominated for the World Player of the Year
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The Independent Online

As they rival the average coat-stand in a cathedral for height, breadth and solidity, most things sit easily on Paul O'Connell's shoulders. But there is one thing that rests about as comfortably as a lace shawl around the giant lock's frame. There is a discernible shiver down his timber as you mention his inclusion this week on the shortlist for International Rugby Board's World Player of the Year.

"Look, I'll tell you what that's all about," he said at the Dublin base camp from which Ireland prepared for today's Test with South Africa. "Everyone's been watching Munster these past two years and the trials and tribulations we went through before eventually lifting the European Cup. It was perhaps the most heart-warming story of last season and I'm sure they wanted to have someone from that team. I was just the most obvious representative. Aye, that's what it is."

That is not "what it is" at all, as confirmed by a quick call to a member of the panel who selected the five nominations. "We didn't even take into account what happened on the club scene - only internationally," said Jonathan Davies, the former Welsh fly-half. "Paul's in there as an individual and a great one, not just the representative of a great team. He's just being modest."

Modest is an understatement (if that makes any sense at all). O'Connell drags humility to a new depth of self-deprecation. It is a quality/failing that his team-mates recognise only too joyously, with his fellow engine-room shoveller, Donncha O'Callaghan, doing so most eloquently. "I'm telling you, when Paul gets around to writing his own autobiography he won't mention himself until page 78," he said. "In truth, though, we all say that Superman is now wearing Paul O'Connell pyjamas."

But the superhero himself is having none of it. As he is the favourite son of Limerick, it is rather apt that there is plenty of rhyme but little reason in what he says, especially when responding to the "accusation" that as he is the only northern hemisphere player on the shortlist of five (the others being the New Zealanders Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, South Africa's Fourie du Preez and Australia's Chris Latham) he is therefore, by extension, the best rugby player currently operating on his side of the globe. "Ayyyhhrrg," he said, presumably blurting out the Irish equivalent of "Pah". "It's not about me or other individuals. People remember teams not individuals."

O'Connell remembers his teams; in fact, perhaps more than anyone in Eddie O'Sullivan's tight set-up, he remembers his rugby history. He is thus well-placed to draw comparisons with Ireland's current rude health and warn how it could all turn blotchy again.

"Take South Africa [today]," O'Connell said. "D'you know, we've only beaten them twice in history? And it'll only happen again if we do what we did two years ago [when Ireland won 17-12] when we produced one of our most disciplined performances in terms of concentration, how we ran our patterns and everything. That is where we have to return."

They may need not go back that far. Surely a return to their form in Hamilton five months ago, should do it, an afternoon when the All Blacks were pushed to parts of their own back yard that, of the northern hemisphere tourists, only England circa 2003 had dared. Ireland ultimately failed, where England had succeeded and although it is fair to say the two camps are not exactly on gas-sharing terms, O'Connell does admit they have taken a few lessons from Woodward's Webb Ellis winners.

"This week we have talked about England and their World Cup," he said. "Over the few years before, they built up the habit of beating southern hemisphere teams. They didn't just show up at the World Cup and start doing it. That's what this next three weeks is all about for us - getting that habit." He appreciates they might have to shed the remnants of an old one first: losing when expected to win.

"There is that," agreed O'Connell. "It's an un-Irish thing to be favourites as we will be this weekend. Traditionally, we always liked to play under the heading of underdog, but that's something we're desperately trying to change. You know we can only play that card for so long. Guys like Brian and 'Rog' [Ronan O'Gara] who are naturally very confident and fully believe they should be winning everything are the kind you need to change that kind of attitude."

But what about the attitude of others, of the rest of the rugby world perchance, who many in Ireland suspect have long underrated their jolly green giant-killers? O'Gara, of course, recently gave full vent to the frustrations when he accused England of ranking themselves way too highly and Ireland way too lowly and while O'Connell is more likely to name a yacht after himself than ever criticise a team-mate, his views on "Underratedgate" can be deemed as conflicting.

"If you think about it, two Triple Crowns isn't a whole lot," began his quiet voice of reason. " If others don't rate you when you're lifting Grand Slam trophies or the World Cup then that's when I think you have every right to feel aggrieved but we've had two great chances to win a Grand Slam and left them both behind. So, to my mind, until we do start winning things, Ireland are bound to be underrated.

"And there is something bigger out there for us. Brian is one of the best players in the world and 'Darce' [Gordon D'Arcy] on his day is right up there with him. Then you have Rog, 'Shaggy' [Shane Horgan]... there haven't been so many quality players like this in an Irish team for an awful long time. So yes, the ambitions are to do a lot more."

But what of his own ambitions? Well, they are getting loftier by the minute and, even with his 6ft 6in frame, O'Connell is struggling to keep up with them. When he is persuaded to warrant himself a mention he admits he is surprised to be where he is now; captain of the European Cup winners, cornerstone of the finest Irish forwards in memory, contender for world's best player.

"You know it's mad, all a bit bananas," said the 27-year-old, throwing his mind back to where he was just five years ago. In 2001 he could not even break into the Munster squad and was such a nobody that when Biarritz came to town in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, he had to climb over a fence at Thomond Park to see the French humbled. "Actually, I did get a ticket because I'd been training with Munster," O'Connell recalled. "But I gave it to the old man and hopped the wall with the lads. Did I ever pay Munster back the gate money? Only with blood, sweat and tears."