February 3rd, 2002. Laid out after attempting to tackle Welsh secondrow Craig Quinnell, a red-haired man in a navy scrum cap lies prone atop the blue Lloyds TSB logo in the centre of the field. Loud boos ring from the 49,000 Lansdowne Road crowd. Quinnell had raised an elbow going into the tackle, a forearm at least. They want a penalty. None given. "Debut, 1st Season of Professional Rugby", the BBC caption reads on screen as barely 45 seconds later the redhead is shown giving a wry smile to his captain Mick Galwey as they arrive for an Irish lineout. So this is Test rugby, Gaillimh?
That was just 14 minutes into Paul O'Connell's international debut. Ten minutes later he'd find himself driven over the tryline next to the old ground's south terrace by Anthony Foley. Not that he could remember it, as O'Connell would recount in a 2014 interview with the Guardian's Donald McRae.
Paul O’Connell. Totem, figurehead and, when he takes the field at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff this coming weekend, Irish rugby centurion. His 100th Ireland cap earned in his 100th Test start in all colours.
These days he’d have been off after that bang from Quinnell. A head injury assessment at least. Quinnell off too, perhaps, after a TMO referral. It was a different time. Ten minutes before half-time referee Pablo de Luca stopped play to allow the debutant O’Connell to be treated.
"Paul O'Connell is so involved in this game that it's he who's gone down injured," said BBC television commentator Eddie Butler. "Big Paul O'Connell in his first Test has scored a try. A dream start."
As the big lock walked to the lineout the Argentinian official would wave him off the field. Blood needed cleaning. It would be the end of his first cap, replaced by Gary Longwell. Eddie O'Sullivan had put O'Connell straight into the team in his first game in charge, replacing the injured Malcolm O'Kelly. The Leinster lock returned to face England but it wouldn't be the last we'd see of that red-haired lock in a green jersey. Nor that wry smile.
A century of caps takes a lot of doing, in some sports more than others. The Ireland cricketers, for example, played 44 capped matches in 2010. George Dockrell got to his ton at the miserably young age of 21. It's a different era from when spin bowler Mike Halliday's 93 appearances over 20 seasons (1970-1989) held the Irish record. Ireland's hockey players play about 30 Tests per year; Nikki Symmons leads both the men's and women's leaderboards with her 208 Ireland caps. While Ireland's rugby team play double the number of Tests than in the 1960s, it's still at the relatively low number of about 10 per season.
For O’Connell, remarkably, that cap total could have been even bigger. At times his body has betrayed him. Unusually for a player at the elite end of the sport he’s made a few appearances for his Young
club in the last decade – half a match in 2008 and 2010 and a full 80 minutes in 2013. Each a return after injury.
Frankie Sheahan started at hooker that 2002 afternoon in place of the injured Keith Wood, the latter one of just three men (along with Brian O'Driscoll and Tom Kiernan) to captain Ireland more often than O'Connell. The 54-10 win remains a record margin in a fixture dating back to 1882.
“He wasn’t your typical secondrow,” said Sheahan of when he’d first seen O’Connell in action for Munster and Ireland that season. “He was more like a backrow forward. He was in the middle of everything. Very aggressive, very competitive.”
That aggression would be masterfully channelled over the long career to come, in the international arena especially. Just two yellow cards in Tests (Tonga in 2003 and against France in 2007).
Paul O'Connell roomed with Peter Clohessy for that debut match, said Sheahan; Young Munster tyro paired with Young Munster legend.
“Peter Clohessy was definitely, without a doubt, the hardest man I’ve played with or against. By a long, long shot. He was ruthlessly hard in all aspects. Paul aspired to be like that,” said Sheahan. “Claw wasn’t huge, and Paul’s not a giant by international secondrow standards. But he took the other side of his game to the next level in terms of fitness, health, nutrition.”
“I think we won’t realise how important he is until he’s retired from the game.” He said O’Connell’s consistency of motivation over such a long career is rare, matched by a talent for dressing-room oratory surpassed by few.
One of the greats
Only 12 men, including Brian O’Driscoll and
, have made 100 Test starts. On Saturday O’Connell will join them. He is by any measure – peak performance, longevity and leadership – one of the great locks.
In 2002, after some patching up from the team medic, the youthful O’Connell would walk around the field to take his seat on the bench. The crowd applauded his contribution in those brief 31 minutes of play.
The day is coming when Paul O’Connell will be applauded from the Test paddock for a final time. Let it not be too soon. There is still work to do.