O'Connell joins the Irish 100 cap club

O'Connell joins the Irish 100 cap club


THERE was an interesting quote from Paul O'Connell in the aftermath of Ireland's Grand Slam triumph in March 2009. Given the context of the victory, how it arrived smack bang in the middle of Ireland's biggest financial meltdown in 60 years, a theory was put forward that the win gave the public something to cling onto.

Aware of this, O'Connell was slow to dismiss the notion that the success of a rugby team could provide an entire nation with hope.

"Judging from the amount of messages I've got from people saying as much, there must be something to it,'' O'Connell said. "If it lets people have a bit of craic and makes people happy, then isn't that great?

"What it's going to do for the economy, I don't know. Maybe a bit of goodwill and positivity out there is a good thing.

"After that...I'm no economist so I don't know what it's going to do.

"I wouldn't have been that interested in economics before, but ever since the whole thing started I've just been reading and reading and trying to figure it all out, how people who are highly qualified and highly experienced could get things so wrong.

"I have to face the fact that in four years time I finish rugby and I'll have no job, no income and no experience. That is an awkward place to be."

The key sentence is that O'Connell expected to be finished 'in four years time', in other words in 2013, two years ago. Not for the first time, though, he defied the odds - playing extra-time in a career that has already brought him two Six Nations, two Heineken Cups, the Lions captaincy and this Saturday, his 100th cap.

That's O'Connell for you. Giving up isn't in his DNA. Nor is reflecting on past glories. His career has known such longevity because a streak of desire has ran through it.

This weekend the Limerick-man takes on a Welsh side, who have regularly lost to Ireland, but whose return of three Grand Slams and four championships from the last decade is starkly better than Ireland's success rate of one Slam and two titles over the same timeframe.

"It is disappointing," O'Connell once said. "Have we underachieved? We'd like to have won more.

"I do know that every coach that I've worked under - whether they've made mistakes or not - and every player I've played with...they've all given it everything.

"From that point of view, we can sleep well at night.

"But if you look at the talent we've had, we had our chances and didn't take them. We were coming off the back of an era when Irish rugby wasn't successful.

"Now when a young guy comes into a Munster, Leinster or Ulster team, they expect to win every game they play. There's a tradition of winning.

"That wasn't there when I first came in with Ireland. It was there when I first came in with Munster.

"Irish players that come in now expect success. That tradition does help you get over the line."

Getting across the line has taken its toll on O'Connell's body. He missed the entirety of the 2013 Six Nations with a back injury which threatened his career. He came back, bigger and bolder than ever.

Now 35, and well into the winter of his rugby lifespan, he knows this could be his last Championship and yet he isn't indulging in a prolonged lap of honour, preferring to focus on the here and now.

It's always been his way. Take that infamous Cardiff day in 2009 when Ronan O'Gara landed a late drop-goal to bring Ireland their first Grand Slam since 1948. Rather than spending his afternoon in fear, O'Connell picked up Richard Branson's autobiography and spent two hours searching for a line that might inspire him. "It wavered a bit, but all in all, it was a really interesting book," he says.

Finding unexpected sources of motivation is partially what has made him so good. A devotee of American sports books, he frequently takes out a highlighter and identifies quotes which can be used in a Munster or Irish dressing room.

"I always love listening to O'Connell during England week," said Andrew Trimble in 2011. "He's always got something special to say and it always has the desired effect. I knew it was coming - I was thinking 'he's going to say something class' and he did."

Joe Kernan thought along similar lines when he invited O'Connell to address the Armagh footballers in 2006. "His passion was unbelievable," said Kernan.

The words are educated and learned as well as fiery. He listens to what others have to say, Padraig Harrington providing him with an unexpected source of inspiration in December 2008, the month before Ireland's Grand Slam journey began. "Padraig would have directed a lot of things that he was saying at us as a team,'' O'Connell recalled.

"He brought up his own experience, of how he'd had so many second-placed finishes, but that he'd pushed himself on to be a champion. He went into the sports psychology side of things that really kicked him on."

Ireland kicked on too. Then came another slump. Then came Joe Schmidt and another Championship. Now he is fighting time as well as the Welsh and knows that sooner rather than later he will be calling it a day.

He, and we, know he will go out as he came in - trying to be the best he can. “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games,’’ Michael Jordan once said.

“On 26 different occasions, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

It's one of O'Connell's favourite quotes. It's also the essence of why Saturday will be his 100th cap.