Being Paulie: The rugby evolution of Paul O’Connell

Keith Duggan talks to the former Ireland and Munster lock as he opens up about his career


Like many millions of golf fans, Paul O’Connell watched the Ryder Cup last weekend. But for him the view was slightly different. “We were down on the practice range at one stage and it was Jordan Spieth, myself, Niall Horan, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson. I think Brad Schneider might have been down at the end and Butch Harmon was beside Rickie Fowler,” he says with the broad, chuffed grin of a golf junkie in four-iron heaven.

It’s a sublime October evening and he is back on the terra firma of south Limerick city. Officially, O’Connell gave an address to the Ryder Cup Europe team at the behest of captain Darren Clarke. Big Darren said O’Connell stilled the room with his words. But he was in awe, too, a fan, and spent most of the tournament following Rory McIlroy. “Even the sound of the ball being hit is different to what I am used to.”

He has never forgotten that sound: the clean percussion of a golf ball being struck perfectly. The first time he heard it was at a tournament in Baltinglass, when he was a school kid entertaining dreams of being a Ryder Cup player himself. 1995. He missed the cut that day. So he decided to follow this Ulster kid everyone was raving about, a cocksure prospect. He only had to watch his first tee-off and hear that thwack to absorb the truth that his notions of being a world-class golfer were a delusion.

“He split the fairways with the kind of draw I fantasised about,” is the concise portrayal of that moment.

Remember that there was nothing predestined or inevitable about the Paul O’Connell that Ireland would come to know: the leader in perpetual motion. He was just a big athletic, uncertain teenager, searching for a means of expression. Swimming had already told him that even though he was good, he wouldn’t be the best. Now golf was delivering the same cold message.

O’Connell didn’t quit. He just started playing less and less. Then one day his father Michael, Young Munster to the marrow, said: “Paul maybe it’s time to go back into team sport.” And so he went one way. Graeme McDowell went the other.

O’Connell got back from Minnesota on Monday evening. On Tuesday, he bumped into the postman near his house. They had a long, long talk. Munster rugby was the chief theme of their chat. These are the worlds he will walk through now, local and international, at home and at ease in either.

On Friday night, you probably saw O’Connell chewing the cud with Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show. They say when good Americans die, they go to Paris. When great Irish rugby players retire, they find themselves, sooner or later, sitting on that couch in Montrose. And this morning, Paul O’Connell’s face, freckled and his blue eyes ultra-vivid, will look out at shoppers through the front window of a hundred book shops across the country. The book display is the final reminder that the O’Connell era has, in fact, passed: that the imperishable image of the flame-haired totemic figure; marauding, leading and towering, through force of personality alone, above the stormy evenings of Thomond or fraught international afternoons in Dublin and always, in Séamus Heaney’s words, backlit in immortal light – is done.

That full stop at the end of his biography is where the rugby-playing life ends. That’s it with Paul O’Connell. “For me, I knew I’d play golf when I finished. And that is what I compete at now. I still watch and talk rugby all weekend. I feel really lucky to get out of it as healthy as I did and I will take from it what I got. And I will never play one of those . . . legends matches or anything like that. No way. No. No way.

“Well . . . No. I just wouldn’t risk it. I got to where I got to and I got out. My hamstring is quite healthy and I got out healthy and will try and keep it that way for as long as I can.”

Still, though: what a spin.

You’d think I’d have calmed down after 10 minutes in the bin, but when Mick Galwey came off the bench for Shannon – after being out injured for a month – I kneed him in the back at a ruck and got away with it. As I was running over to a lineout, John Langford started shouting at me. Langford was a superstar of the second row. If it wasn’t for John Eales he’d probably have won 50 caps for the Wallabies. So he deserved respect, especially from a kid who had achieved nothing. I jerked my head in his direction and gave it to him: “Go fuck yourself. Fuck off home to Australia!” 

– (The Battle, page 40)

We forget how he was in the beginning coming up: a hugely energetic, aggressive, callow lock with a wild streak, in a hurry and with a point to prove. He looks back at that unrefined, apprentice version of himself and kind of blushes.

“Oh I cringe. I totally cringe. And there is that passage there with Paddy Johns. ” – yes, that too, in which he meets the redoubtable Johns for the first time in his life and spends 80 minutes going at the big Portadown man and telling him that he is past it, telling him to retire. (“Claw loved it,” he remembers in The Battle).

“I would be disgusted if I heard of a young guy doing it,” O’Connell sighs now. “Paddy, you know: God, what an amazing player and I’ve met him since and what a gentleman. But crikey, he was a different player once we crossed the white line. Now, he started it that day! He started it! But I was young and, like, I didn’t sledge or say anything to anyone for the second half of my career. I realised it was pointless. But back then, I had to win the match and I had to win the argument during the match.”

“Back then” – it is a constant and necessary reference point for O’Connell, who came through elite rugby in that unique, fascinating decade where the violent, romantic ideals of the amateur era were sufficiently alive to influence and colour the ambitions and goals of the emerging professional game.

No big European club dressingroom managed to blend that cocktail as successfully as Munster. From 1995-2006, Munster were part crack-commando rugby unit; part Shane MacGowan song. And O’Connell emerged, post-Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy, as Munster’s – and then Ireland’s – figurehead. He lapped up their war stories, revelled in the nights out, the constant in-house competition and sense of brotherhood disguised as merciless piss-taking. And he adored it.

At the same time, he wanted to be the best pro rugby player he could be. And that meant making a transition from the last of rugby’s wilding-out era to the contemporary game, in which discipline has become an absolute must.

“See, I think one of the great things about rugby right now is that there is little or no foul play. When I first came in, shoe-ing or raking was standard practice. If two people were digging the head of each other, the referee would give them a talking to and make them shake hands. Now, they’d be gone.

“Our culture in Munster in the early days was really aggressive. That is gone too. You have to train as you play. The penalty count is massive so you can’t just show up on Saturday after training with no discipline. There used to be a lot of fights and aggro at training. That’s gone. People used to talk about an ‘enforcer’ second row. He is gone now too. And I think that’s a good thing.”

His book unflinchingly charts his personal evolution through that period. He is not at all easy on himself in his self-reflection, written with Alan English, the rugby writer and editor of the Limerick Leader. You have to stand beside O’Connell to get a sense of how physically imposing the man is. Yes, he has that unexpected leanness of many second row giants but when he folds the big frame into a lounge chair; he is all angles and bones. Stopping him must have been as much fun as tackling a combine harvester.

Late in his career O’Connell occasionally saw one or two younger players linger on the ground for a few seconds after taking a hit. And it used to annoy him. There were no broken bones. No concussion. So he’d challenge them about it.

Mike Ford, in his time as Ireland defence coach, once showed O’Connell a strip of film. A player goes down with a cut in his eye. Play goes on. The team defends for five or six phases without their team-mate. Then a physio comes in and straps him up and he trots back into position. “Why?” Ford asked, in his best Oldham accent. “It’s only a bit of claret.”

“That stayed with me,” says O’Connell, “because when I was young, if you got a big cut on your head you were inclined to stay down and hold it. But you actually don’t need to.

“Look at GAA games or the old days in the hurling when they had no helmets and fellas playing with blood all over their faces and not a bother. And I’d be worrying now about kids’ parents reading this: but it struck me. It’s only a bit of claret! Get back in the D line. A break will come when you can get strapped.”

The ambulance drove off and Eddie came across the pitch towards us.

“What’s the story? I asked him.

“The story is, you nearly killed him.”

– (The Battle, page 110)

That day in Limerick, in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup, was where the old ways ended for O’Connell. Scraps at training were still fairly common: it wasn’t difficult to get him sparked. Ulster’s Ryan Caldwell was doing just that; behaving like the young O’Connell used to. Then Caldwell floored the senior man with a tackle during a non-contact drill. And as O’Connell says: my switch went. He didn’t think he had punched Caldwell hard but one of his teeth had burst his cheek and he was swallowing blood.

It was worrying for a short while and it was a terrifying moment for O’Connell. He felt low afterwards and guilty and was in tears when he called his father. It was the clearest sign of how the strength and conditioning programmes were changing them all.

“It was a disaster. Ryan took it very well. He almost laughed it off. But it was a disaster. I was a senior player on the team and it wasn’t the example I should be setting. It had a big, big effect on me.

“Eddie [O’Sullivan] had that one-liner but he was very good to me afterwards. He came up to the room and we had a good chat about it. And the Ulster guys – Rory Best and Paddy Wallace – were very good. And I was really appreciative over how good they were.”

That was it. He never swung an arm in anger again. That day stands as just one of many crossing points O’Connell made as the rest of us watched him bloom from fierce, irrepressible eye-catching lock to the figure who commanded global respect among the rugby fraternity. For years, funnily, all his motivations were based on negative emotion.

There is a terrific passage in the book where he recounts a conversation with Caroline Currid, the sports psychologist who came to shape his way of thinking. For years, Paulie thought that stuff was bunk. Who needed psychology when you had the voice of Claw bouncing around in your brain? So they went through O’Connell’s pre-match patterns – the invariable bout of nerves, sometimes throwing up; the occasional feelings of dread and wishing he could hide and this battling his own mind. He was at once a sports psychologist’s nightmare and dream. Eventually, they discovered common ground: while O’Connell had never visualised himself playing as he prepared for his big games, he had pictured himself in the dressingroom afterwards.

“Okay,” Currid says. “And what are you doing?,” perhaps half-expecting a description of the Munster lads in full-beer-and-rebel-songs mode.

“I’m just sitting there, absolutely devastated. Everyone around me is the same.”

The moment is at once hilarious and dark and it gets to the heart of the private doubts and worries O’Connell had to master. The Battle is full of them – his first Lions tour, in New Zealand in 2005, was such an unexpectedly isolating experience for O’Connell that he took refuge in plain clothes and one of his favourite pastimes, reading. He spent one afternoon shelled up in a coffee shop reading Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, which would be enough to break the spirit of any man.

“After the first Test I started smoking the odd cigarette in my room. To this day I don’t know why,” he writes. Little moments like these are so revelatory because it would have been easier for O’Connell to keep them buried and to present the dimensions of the man already known to the public: the unconquerable number five, the down to earth son of Limerick; big Paulie; Rouge.

“I was a bit naive going on that tour,” he says now. “I just assumed the Lions would be so special and it was as miles away from what I imagined it was going to be. You heard all these stories of the friendships and the ’97 documentary was incredible. And it was such a tough tour. Clive [Woodward] tried something different by . . . bringing a big squad and rooming on our own and two separate coaching staffs for each week. I think that is something you can do when you are way down the track as a team and have built trust. Then we lose Brian [O’Driscoll], [Lawrence] Dallaglio and Richard Hill, our three best players, early on and the rest of us perceived big players didn’t hold form.

“And then I thought New Zealand were phenomenal over that period . . . even in the lashing rain in the first game their skill level was incredible. We just got killed. Nothing went right. It was a miserable tour in the end.”

It was nearly 10 years since my first Munster start, away to Neath. Me and Rog were the only players on the team sheet for both of those games.

– (The Battle, page 262)

What he learned, over time, even on the brilliant days, was that the thrill of victory was temporary. That it couldn’t just be about that. And even as he was beginning to master that concept, his body – the most reliable weapon that he had – began to falter. And he wasn’t alone. Barry Murphy was done at 28. Ian Dowling was done at 28. Jerry Flannery had to bow out in 2011. The train kept moving.

Do teams stay teams forever? O’Connell leans forward and scans the team sheet for that trip to Neath in 2001. When did he last see them all?

“Okay, Dominic Crotty: he was home for a match two Christmases ago. John O’Neill I haven’t met in six years, I would say. John Kelly. I met three weeks ago. Jason Holland I haven’t met since he moved back to New Zealand but I get the odd text message from him. Anthony Horgan I meet quite a lot. Ronan O’Gara I chat to and meet a lot. Peter Stringer. the odd text message.

“Peter Clohessy . . . I meet him around Limerick now and again. Frankie [Sheahan] I meet quite a bit. Martin Cahill I haven’t met in ages.

“Donnacha [O’Callaghan] . . . haven’t met him since the summer. Text messages I suppose. Jim Williams, awh, I haven’t met him in six or seven years. David Wallace I meet quite a bit and Anthony [Foley] I meet a lot.”

Every so often, one of them will make a stab at arranging a night out. “Not as often as we should,” he admits with a men-are-lazy-about-that-crack shrug.

“But, you know, one of the problems is: Munster is not your club. With your club, you end up back in the clubhouse and coaching an underage side. It doesn’t work like that. It is a strange thing. It is a pity really.”

In The Battle, it’s the nights out, the fun and camaraderie which are recalled in greater detail than the feeling that came with all that winning and cup-lifting in which he starred.

The stereotype is of O’Connell the relentless winner, but he has always loved the social aspect of the sport, particularly with Munster and Ireland when players and supporters would just merge at the bar. That, too, was of a time and place.

“I think when you are out for a night and stand for a load of photos . . . that is difficult. People are friendly of course, but they used to come up and they would chat maybe about rugby for five minutes and then you’d have a normal conversation.

“But now it is all photos. It’s just the way the world is. We had the best of both worlds in that we trained as professional sports people. But some of the stuff we were up to on nights out, if Twitter was around we would be hung, drawn and quartered.”

Yesterday an elderly lady came to training and gave me a watch, the kind you put in a waistcoat pocket. She said she was from Thomondgate, which is literally a stone’s throw from Thomond Park. She had got the watch engraved: Thanks for the memories.

– (The Battle, page 378)

Time is ticking. Across Limerick, the shops and offices are emptying for the evening. O’Connell feels as busy as ever as an ex-player but laughs as he concedes he is not sure what with. He and Emily have two young children now, Paddy and Lola: that’s a bunch of time flying by right there. If any parent asked him if he believes rugby is a safe sport to send their child along to, he can hand on heart say yes.

“I think if your child is going to stay in Ireland and play rugby he is in a good place. It’s a fantastic sport and it has brilliant values here. I don’t think that the majority of injuries come from collisions. There are a lot of injuries in the game but I think it is injuries upon injuries. We have to manage those. But my boy is six and he is playing rugby now and I am delighted. It is not his favourite game by any means. He is golf mad. But he does enjoy rugby. Golf is the only game he asks me to play with him.”

But then, he doesn’t play rugby anymore. You’ll see Paul O’Connell about the place. He was a son of Limerick from beginning to end. Although he officially left Munster for Toulon, he never did make it to France. His Munster days ended in a strange limbo: he was contracted to the French team but rehabbing at home after that excruciating injury playing for Ireland in the 2015 World Cup.

“Normally I’d be in the office thrashing things out, trying to fix it. Probably being helpful in some ways and probably being difficult in other ways. And I couldn’t do it. I just had to walk in and anyone I met say hello and then walk out. It was probably a barrier that I put up. Munster were incredibly good to me and were so eager to help out. But you can’t play for a club for that long and be so intimately involved and then move on and not feel . . . guilt. I did feel guilt.”

But he never really did move on. So you’ll see him in the stands. You may see him at Leinster and Munster this afternoon and he won’t be on the field for the big dance. And that’s fine with him. You’ll see him around the town or doing some work with youngsters at Munster and down at the gym, doing the same as the other regulars. He has no interest in competing against himself or the world now. The mad desire to beat Flannery or Wallace or O’Callaghan at anything, everything: it has left him.

“No! Honestly,” he protests. “I injured myself more times in the gym lifting stupid weights trying to compete with young guys. I realised it wasn’t the answer for me. I had a certain set of strengths and gym and weights was not one of those. I wasn’t particularly strong. I wish I had learned that earlier. If I see someone lifting heavy now, good luck to them . . . I’ve no interest in competing.”

There was a many a year when he could never have spoken those words. But that’s been part of it all. When he was a kid, a swimmer with ambitions to slay the world, he got this notion: I’m someone who wins things.

So after all the noise and the glory and the roaring stadiums and the acclamation, is he still that person?

Paul O’Connell allows himself a smile.

“I don’t think I have to be. At the start, there was nothing about the experience of anything. It was about winning or losing and finishing the season with silverware. And it’s funny. . . that meant Munster. If we won a Grand Slam, you still have three months left and if you don’t win with Munster, you end up going into the summer on a losing season. And I noticed that with a lot of the trophies I won. The feeling is really fleeting. A week later, you think: I need to be back training. So I realised it can’t be all about winning and losing if after a week that nice feeling is gone. So at the end, I was working harder than I ever had, but I had figured out a way of enjoying it. I put myself under terrible pressure at times. I was there by the end. But it was a struggle.”

The Battle by Paul O’Connell is published by Penguin Ireland at €25.00. He will sign copies in Eason’s O’Connell St, Dublin, at noon today; O’Mahony’s Limerick, at 2pm tomorrow; and in Eason’s, Patrick St, Cork, at 2pm on October 15th.

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