Diarmaid Ferriter on Paul O’Connell’s ‘absorbing, compelling’ autobiography
In ‘The Battle’, the Munster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions powerhouse has written an honest memoir of his battle-scarred life in rugby
Cool customer: Ireland captain Paul O'Connell looks on as the match is called off just before kick off due to a frozen pitch during the RBS 6 Nations match between France and Ireland at Stade de France on February 11, 2012 in Paris, France. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
“Win the moment in front of your face”: Paul O’Connell in action against Italy in the 2012 RBS 6 Nations. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Paul O’Connell with Alan English
Paul O’Connell has long been a man for taking stock, not just of his mental state and his rugby but also of his injuries. Towards the end of this book he reflects on the aftermath of his third British and Irish Lions tour, in 2013. Having had an operation on his knee, he concludes that he is due a run without injuries.
He then lists them all from 2002 to 2013: “2002: Back, four months. 2003: Broken thumb, three months. 2005: Broken thumb, three months. 2007/2008: Broken thumb, seven weeks. Back, four months. 2010: Groin infection, knee: eight months. 2011: Ankle, four weeks. 2012/13: Knee, four weeks. Knee/back, five months. Back, five months. Arm/wrists, six weeks.” That list was before O’Connell’s career-ending injury at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, when a tendon ripped off the bone – a complete hamstring avulsion: “I hit the ground. Play moved on.”
Much of The Battle is O’Connell’s journey through crippling injury and pain and the mental battles to deal with them. What make it absorbing and compelling are his lack of self-pity and his focus on his strategies for dealing with the relentless assaults on his body.
As well as being on the receiving end, O’Connell poured out his own aggression. As he learned from the rugby talk at his Limerick kitchen table while growing up,“it was always about forward play and hard men”.
Young Munster was to be the beneficiary of Paul’s version of that, as the swimming, golf, tennis and basketball of his childhood were left to one side. He could not get his golf handicap lower than four, and his father – a diehard Munster rugby man and a warm, supportive presence throughout the book – suggested gently, “Paul, maybe it’s time to go back to team sport.”
Evolution of an athlete
O’Connell’s narrative mirrors his own evolution and maturation, which makes it authentic, although the earlier parts can be frustrating; what transpired on the pitches, in dressing rooms and during post-match piss-ups does not necessarily translate well on to the page.
With schools rugby, Young Munster and his earlier days with the senior Munster team there were “a lot of chips on a lot of shoulders”, countless inane expletive-ridden exchanges – you lose count of how many people were told to “shut the f**k up” – a junior cup victory after which “we drank our loaves off” and “a sing song at 8 o’clock in the morning in the early house next to Donkey Ford’s fish and chip shop.”
There was also the pulling down of tracksuit pants in a Paris McDonald’s: “that kind of craic . . . the most childish stuff you could ever imagine . . . you took the slag and you tried to give it back better. It was vicious but it wasn’t . . . When Marcus Horan found out he had a heart condition and was worried about his future in the game we thought about the best song to play when he came back into the camp from surgery. We decided he needed to hear Feargal Sharkey singing, “A good heart these days is hard to find.”
I suppose you had to be there.
In O’Connell’s early days with the Munster senior team, training games were nakedly aggressive. There is an admirable honesty about the violence, including his head-butting of Trevor Hogan and, in 2007, his punching unconscious of Ryan Caldwell at an Ireland training camp. As one of Caldwell’s teeth burst his cheek, he was swallowing a lot of blood. The furious response of Eddie O’Sullivan, the coach? “You nearly killed him.”
Such incidents generated a realisation that “indiscipline kills rugby teams and that aggression must be controlled”.
The O’Connell who dominates this book is the one who becomes fixated on the mentality of champions: the player and strategist with “so many things to say, so many solutions in my head all week for winning the game on Saturday”.
O’Connell is not in the business of settling scores or dishing dirt. True, he wanted to punch Alastair Campbell during the 2005 Lions tour, because Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, who had been hired to handle the team’s media relations, questioned the players’ fighting abilities. But this was probably because Campbell knew nothing about rugby. The athlete has nothing but praise for those who have an abundance of rugby knowledge.
They include Declan Kidney, who, coaching Munster to Heineken Cup victory, taught the players that “having belief in what we were doing was almost more important than what we were actually doing”. He found O’Sullivan’s training plans made for better players. He learned from Joe Schmidt the need to have the right foundations in place and for players to become better thinkers rather than having an exhaustive new game plan every week.
For O’Connell a turning point was writing out his goals for the 2008-9 season and speaking to the performance coach Caroline Currid. Although at first sceptical, he found that taking motivational psychology seriously provided the key to enjoying play: “I got much better at working on the process that went into winning rather than being distracted by thoughts of what winning or losing might feel like.”
The Battle is also interesting in tracing the transition from old-school professional rugby to players knowing their jobs and the game plans backwards. Again Schmidt pointed the way: after six months working with him, O’Connell writes, “my way of thinking about playing and preparation had been turned on its head”.
Schmidt is all about precision, effective visualisation, the need to “win the moment in front of your face” and – crucial to winning two RBS 6 Nations championships in a row – not giving away stupid penalties.
The accumulation of years of heavy training and pounding brought on unyielding injuries and a fear in O’Connell that teams might move on without him as he “turned a stationary bike over at a pace that wouldn’t have taken the breath out of a 60 year old housewife . . . Three quarters of the way through rehab for the groin, my knee came at me out of nowhere.”
Difene, to relieve pain and inflammation, became his friend, but O’Connell hated that he needed it to play. As he approached the 2011 Rugby World Cup, in New Zealand, a little voice inside was insisting that “you cannot maintain this pace”.
O’ Connell offers passing thoughts on the need for rugby “to exercise vigilance over legal painkilling medication”, but more elaboration on this, and on the thorny issue of concussion, would have been welcome.
The depth of O’Connell’s increasing self-awareness shines through in the latter part of the book: his feeling that “I’m not where I need to be yet”, realising that there had, in the past, been too much training – “taking on weights I’d no business lifting” – and the fallacy of believing that he had to go through so much stress to play well.
Psychology cannot perform miracles with a battered body, however, and O’Connell was constantly wondering how much longer he could play. “Three months into the season I hoped would be the best of my career I was lying face down at Cappagh Hospital waiting for an epidural injection in my back. I’d barely trained in 6 months.”
After Ireland’s 6 Nations championship win in 2015, and O’Connell’s surviving yet another battle, the reader can almost share the taste of the deserved decadence of “2 burgers and garlic chips with cheese” and, with O’Connell, heave a sigh of relief when he finally said to his wife, Emily, this past July: “I don’t think I’m going to get back.”
There is a happy ending for Paul O’Connell. He was ready to finish, and when he did he did not feel a void, knowing he had always tried to make his best better and his team better. It was a satisfaction hard earned, and the effort has now been well chronicled.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. His most recent book is A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-23 (Profile Books)