Imposing figure at heart of the Irish team
Ireland captain Paul O’Connell ‘in a good place’and looking forward to the Six Nations
Paul O’Connell scoring the try he doesn’t remember on his international debut against Wales in Lansdowne in 2002. “I didn’t score a try. You’re only saying that to get me to come off.” Photograph: Inpho/Allsport
Twelve years ago Paul O’Connell made his Six Nations debut for Ireland in a match that he barely remembers. During the game, for much of the first half, his memory was even hazier – for he was oblivious to both his surroundings and try-scoring exploits.
Of course, being O’Connell, he had made an instant impact against Wales as a raw 22-year-old. “I scored a try but I don’t remember it. I went to tackle Craig Quinnell and he knocked me clean unconscious with his elbow. I played on for another 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 came over and he was asking my phone number and holding up his hand and saying how many fingers. While he was questioning me I looked up at the clock as it was counting down. 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.”
All these years later O’Connell, who will captain Ireland again when the Six Nations begins this weekend, leans back in his chair and smiles. At least he can recall the build-up to that surreal game against Wales in 2002. O’Connell lingers over a sheet of paper listing Ireland’s team and, as a lock forward, it is inevitable he should focus on the pack that day. “Munster. Munster . . . Munster . . .” he says softly, ticking off the provincial identity of his fellow forwards. “Look at that,” O’Connell says once he has completed his scan of the eight forwards and scrum-half on his debut. “All the way down from 1 to 9 there’s only on guy, Simon Easterby, not from Munster.”
O’Connell has always played for Munster and, last week, he signed a new contract which will keep him in Limerick until 2016. His form in recent weeks, during towering Heineken Cup performances, has been exceptional yet again. The only source of wonder is that this amiable giant off the field continues to bring such ferocious commitment to his play a dozen years since that woozy first international appearance.
“This time 12 years ago,” O’Connell says cheerfully, “I felt full of excitement. It also seemed like pure luck I was even in the squad. Malcolm O’Kelly was injured and I’d just been picked to start for Munster against Stade Français in a Heineken Cup quarter-final. I got man of the match but that was my first big start for Munster. I never thought for an instant I’d be involved in the Ireland side.
“I went into camp and I was rooming with Peter Clohessy. I said to myself: ‘Why have they got me rooming with Peter? Are they trying to tell me something?’ Rob Henderson then said: ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if you played on Saturday?’ I went [O’Connell cocks his head]: ‘Is he actually thinking that or is he taking the piss?’”