If you asked 100 Irish people how to describe Paul O’Connell, the word legend would immediately spring to mind. In modern sports, very often we hear commentators and pundits alike referring to players as ‘legends’. When we call Paul O’Connell one, we really mean it.
13 years after making his debut against Wales, 108 caps later, O’Connell suffered an injury which ultimately ended one of the greatest international careers of all time. His international career began and ended in injury. 14 minutes into his Irish debut, O’Connell was knocked unconscious. 10 minutes later, he we was scoring his first try for Ireland. This single snapshot of his career sums up the true character that is Paul O’Connell.
A leader in every respect, O’Connell captained Munster, Ireland and the Lions. He has always appeared as a man who was destined for success. His record speaks for itself: two Heineken Cup medals, three Six Nations (one Grand Slam as well) and a Lions series win. Even after being stripped of his Irish captaincy, there is no doubt that O’Connell was one of, if not the commanding voice in the Irish dressing room.
The most definitive way of understanding the true impact O’Connell had on his fellow players is by actually looking at the tributes following his forced retirement. The #ThanksPaulie hashtag garnered approximately 30,000 tweets, each a tribute to the great man himself. Importantly, it isn’t just us Irish who hold O’Connell in such a high regard. Dan Carter described him as “world-class… an absolute beast”, while Victor Matfield described him as “probably the best player I’ve played against in my career.”
“There is no doubt that O’Connell was one of, if not the commanding voice in the Irish dressing room”
Another mark of the man is his great sense of humour, something which we don’t get to see in a lot of sports stars competing at the highest level. One such example is his interview with Ryan Tubridy in January 2010 in which he discussed Donnacha O’Callaghan’s using of sunbeds and his less than stellar Leaving Cert (Paul’s 500 points being about 410 more than O’Callaghan).
One thing that is certain is that it will be very difficult to replace O’Connell the player and O’Connell the leader. Following his performance against France, Iain Henderson appeared to be the ideal replacement for O’Connell. Henderson possesses a lot of O’Connell’s best traits: he is a strong ball carrier and a towering presence in the line-out. Henderson has improved in the last 12 months and has provided Ireland with new depth to their forward options. The retirement of O’Connell may be the added boost he needs to further step up his game and become the next great Irish lock.
Unfortunately, ‘Ireland after O’Connell’ were found wanting against a very physical Argentinian team in their quarter-final fixture on Sunday. The most apparent loss to the Irish team on Sunday was the lack of leadership, particularly in the forward-line. This is something which Joe Schmidt alluded to in an interview with RTÉ after the game.
The reality is that, in time, Ireland will replace Paul O’Connell. The problem is that whether it is Henderson or someone else, they are bound to be compared to O’Connell for years to come. The same issue arose following Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement in 2014. Where the real challenge lies is whether Jamie Heaslip can become the leader of the Irish forward-line, inspiring them to victories like O’Connell did on many occasions during his 14 year international career. If not Heaslip, then who?