THERE were thin scars along his cheekbone where the hand of an opponent had scratched. His right ear was bleeding slightly and yet the dominant feature of Paul O’Connell’s face was the look of sheer concentration.
It is an expression we have been staring at for 13 years now — since he made his Heineken Cup debut for Munster as a 21-year-old replacement for Mick Galwey against Harlequins, a year before his first international, five years before he helped Munster land their Hold Grail.
That cast has gone now and a new generation has come along to keep the flame alight and this weekend they travel to the south of France to face a Toulon side who dismantled Leinster in the quarters and are overwhelming favourites to reach a second successive European final.
“We’ll need to reproduce the performance we delivered against Toulouse,” said O’Connell. “Leinster have shown the way in recent years — consistently doing it on the big days time after time, no matter what the competition. That is where we need to get to.”
Once upon a time it was Munster who were the brand leaders in consistency, the side who regularly reached the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, who lost two finals before landing the big one in 2006 and winning it again in 2008.
“Between 2000 and 2008, of the nine finals that were played, we competed in four of them, and since then we haven’t played in a final. Last year, we reached the semi-finals but we were very poor in the Rabo [PRO12], so a lot of the criticism that is levelled at us is fair. Until we are successful again, we can’t complain.”
Actually they can. O’Connell and the rarely used Donncha O’Callaghan are the only survivors of that first Heineken Cup win and in a country with a shallow playing pool, the ageing of a great side has clearly taken its toll.
“Rog (Ronan O’Gara) is a big loss, but that’s part of the game,” said O’Connell. “There have been big name players who have left the province for the last six or seven years now.
"Anthony Foley was probably the first to leave back in 2008, then we’ve had Wally (David Wallace), Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Denis Leamy and others like Ian Dowling and Barry Murphy who were our hardest trainers and our most dedicated pros.
“All those guys left a void. It has been tough filling that void but we’re fortunate to keep bringing through fantastic talent. The younger players just need time together to gain experience and people need to be patient with them.”
Yet in the run up to the Toulouse game earlier this month, O’Connell’s patience was wearing thin. Leinster — yet again — had beaten them at the Aviva and some harsh words had to be spoken. “The truth is we hadn’t played well in a long time. There was a fear factor that if we didn’t perform, we could suffer.”
Instead, they rolled back the years and delivered — scoring six tries to knock out the four-times champions and suggest this generation is capable of taking on the baton and running with it.
“There is fantastic talent coming through, but you always need experience too. That team which started the whole Munster thing in 1999-2000 went away to Saracens and got a big away win in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup, then things just took off from there.
“In some ways, that’s what this team needs; some back-to-back big performances, away from home. You start accumulating winning experience. We haven’t done that yet — we’ve done it in bits and pieces, in fits and starts, but not consistently,” said O’Connell.
Consistency has been one of the hallmarks of the Limerick man’s career. Now 34, and a veteran of 93 internationals, he is revered among his peers. “Paul O’Connell is phenomenal,” Gloucester’s head coach, Nigel Davies, said last year. “He galvanises his team. His sheer presence is a huge factor.”
Rob Penney, Munster’s coach, went further. “Paul is an amazing character... a once-in-a-lifetime player. You wouldn’t want anyone else guiding your ship.”
“A player for the ages,” said Ian McGeechan.
Such appreciation is easily explained. People who love the game love O’Connell for the way he plays it — with that passion, that ferocity, that never-say-die attitude. Plus there is that legendary capacity to withstand pain.
Two seasons ago he played 40 minutes of a Test against France with a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee. Then last summer, he finished the Lions’ second Test despite having fractured his forearm — playing on for six minutes with the break. On his test debut, against Wales, he played most of the match with concussion.
“I scored a try but I don’t remember it,” says O’Connell.
“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.”
What he does remember is the team-sheet and the identity of Ireland’s pack. “All the way down from 1 to 9 there was only guy, Simon Easterby, not from Munster.”
So much has changed. Leinster are the predominant force now in Joe Schmidt’s team now and Munster are regarded as Ireland’s second team.
Yet for how much longer? Having travelled further in the Heineken Cup than their big city rivals for a second successive season, the evidence is mounting that a pendulum shift is occurring.
Was this why O’Connell opted, earlier this season, to sign a new contract which will see his career end in Limerick? “Part of me wanted to sample life in France but I have always been happy here and we were always challenging. We are challenging again this year. We have ambitions and we want to fulfil those.”
It’s the only way those scars will ever heal.