Alan Quinlan: Paul O’Connell always loved pain and he made us love it too

It’s incredible he’s still going to such a high level after all these years but I’m not surprised

Paul O’Connell making another of those unglamorous carries that are the hallmark of his unselfishness and work ethic. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Paul O’Connell making another of those unglamorous carries that are the hallmark of his unselfishness and work ethic. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

When Joe Schmidt said on Saturday that Paul O’Connell had taken the week by the scruff of the neck, I wasn’t surprised at all. I couldn’t help smiling at the idea. I could just picture him coming in on the Tuesday after the Wales game and standing in front of the squad and questioning them all. It would have been intense, it would have been clinical and it would have been specific.

I’ve been in that room with him. I’ve sat there as he’s gone around the squad looking fellas in the eye and telling them that we made a heap of mistakes last week and now it’s all about how we turn it around. We did this wrong. We did that wrong. The only way we prevent it happening again is to ask ourselves why and come up with honest answers.

He would have really questioned guys’ attitudes and their commitment. In the wrong hands, those questions could be insulting. But the way he does it, it would be inspiring. And not just the players, either – he’d question the staff and management as well. What are you going to do on Saturday? How are you going to react? What does this mean to you? Why are you here? What do you want to achieve? Who are you playing for?

Ground rules

The point with Paul O’Connell is that he never asks these questions just of those around him or those in front of him in a team room. His implication is always that he is asking those questions of himself. That’s how you lead.

I was really struck throughout the Six Nations by how many carries he made. If you go back over the stats of the tournament, he made more carries than everyone else in the Ireland squad. The official stats have him down for 59 carries over the five games. Rob Kearney had 58, Robbie Henshaw had 56, Peter O’Mahony had 52. Remember, he’s the oldest man in the team.

What summed him up, I thought, was the fact that he was the one making all the unglamorous carries. All those other guys made more yards than he did – and a few others passed him in terms of yardage made as well – but the point wasn’t to make ground, even though he did make a few clean line breaks against Wales. The point is that rugby is a game where you have to go through the small, horrible phases before you crack the opposition open.

Nobody likes making those carries. There’s no glory in them. There’s very little gainline in them. You’re not going to score a try or even set one up. You’re going to get busted by two tacklers, driven back on your backside, stood on, pulled at and set upon by people trying to turn the ball over. Time and again he did that throughout the Six Nations because his attitude is always, “Sure look, I’ll do that and one of the rest of ye can make the line break.”

Half-wishing we’d gone home

For whatever reason – and I haven’t a clue why it came up – the thought occurred to me as we were lying there that I had won my 23rd cap on Saturday. I said this and Paul went, “Really? It was my 23rd as well.” And Wally went, “That’s mad, it was my 23rd too!”

So when he was winning his 100th cap, I texted him. “Since that morning in Cape Town, Paul O’Connell won another 77 caps, David Wallace won another 49, Alan Quinlan won another 4. Where did it all go wrong for me?” He came back with, “Ah, in fairness Quinny, I was a bit younger than you.”

It’s incredible that he’s still going to such a high level 11 years later but I’m not surprised. Nobody worked harder than Paul O’Connell. Ever. He was always of the opinion that games were won and lost away from the pitch, in the work you did in the gym, in the weight sessions and video sessions and little improvements that others weren’t doing.

I remember being a bit taken aback at first by the amount of work he wanted to get through but knowing soon enough that I needed to try to match him. You don’t often think that about players who are younger than you and who’ve just arrived. They’re generally not the first place you look to for inspiration. But Paul was different.

If you were a team-mate of his, you found yourself wanting to measure up to him. As the years went by, he took hold of the dressing room more and more. You might have a Saturday morning off after a hard week of training and your phone would buzz with a text from him asking if anyone was up for going in to do an extra fitness session. Your body could be aching and your head would be dreading it but you’d go anyway. Paul loved pain. You learned to love it too.

There were times when he went overboard, no doubt about it. I think it took him a few years to understand that not everybody was wired the way he was. Different players have different ways of getting themselves into the right frame of mind but he definitely didn’t get that from the start.

We were in the dressing room in Cork one time for a Celtic League game and something about the vibe of the place really irritated him. A few guys were listening to music, a few others were taking the piss. John Hayes and I were in the shower area slagging each other about how much the opposition prop/back rows were going to make a fool of him/me.

Paulie hated all this and he was going around like a bull, freaking out at guys. This was before the warm-up but he was going through a phase where he thought that the only way to prepare for a game was to be totally tuned into it well in advance. He was getting narky and telling everyone they had to get their game faces on and their headphones off.

Bit of a messer

That’s the great thing about him. He has always been able to evolve and understand that people are different. It would have been easier for him to think that he could lead by example and challenge everyone else to be like him but he wouldn’t have brought everyone with him like that. Instead, he saw that different guys needed different treatment. It’s what has made him such an outstanding captain.

He was Ireland’s player of the tournament. In fact, he was the player of the tournament, full-stop. For him to be playing at this standard at this age is incredible and I couldn’t be happier for him that this is how it has all turned out.

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