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Saturday 3 December 2016

O'Connell leaves our stage as a real hero

28 August 2015; Ireland's Paul O'Connell makes his way out for the captain's run. Ireland Rugby Squad Captain's Run, Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
28 August 2015; Ireland's Paul O'Connell makes his way out for the captain's run. Ireland Rugby Squad Captain's Run, Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

South African legend Bakkies Botha has already been tempted into naming his World Cup Dream Team for 2015.

While there were some head-scratching picks, he did not play around when it came to his own specialist knowledge at second row.

"It's the two old dogs - Paul O'Connell and Victor Matfield," he said.

"I truly believe they are world-class leaders and they bring something to a team that's special."

There you have it. The plaudits are better coming from someone other than yourself.

The lead-in to the Ireland captain's last international at The Aviva Stadium comes as a source of embarrassment for him, as much as anything else, given how the underlying theme always comes back around to his greatness.

It is akin to asking a staying chaser to pat itself on the back.

"Yeah, they are embarrassing. I mean, they're nice (as well). I really enjoyed my last (Munster) game in Thomond Park against the Ospreys that day," said O'Connell.

"I had it to myself almost.

"I think most players want to focus on the game and get on with the game, particularly with the way we play.

"There's an awful lot of things to think about. There's an awful lot of things we've got to do to play well, to fit into the system.

"You're not too bothered by any of the outside distractions."

And, yet, the journey from innocence into icon must be dwelt upon. There was that first cap against Wales in February 2002, that first try from a maul which he can't remember, the result of his only concussion in the game.

"When I won my first cap, apart from Simon Easterby, one to 10 were all Munster, so that was very comforting for me."

There have been many big days from there to here - too many to mention them all.

The Limerick man has worked through a transformation in the game from the chain-smoking antics of Peter 'The Claw' Clohessy to the rigid professionalism of the man he has become.

"I haven't always done the right thing. But I've always tried to do the right thing in how I've trained and prepared and played," he said.

"It's funny. We actually train a lot less. We used to be one hour 40 minutes on the pitch two days a week, 90 minutes on the pitch one day a week and 45 minutes the day before tests.

"We're rarely on the pitch now longer than 65-70 minutes," he said.

"I think back then as well after you won the line-out or after you won the scrum, all bets were off and it was play away, and do what you like, you know."

The first wind of change was when Mike Ford blew into town as the Irish defence coach in O'Connell's first season with Ireland.

"He (Ford) was a like a rocket scientist to us in terms of what he wanted us to do defensively."

"Back then, I think the guys who were really hard trainers, that were big into their diets and big into their weights and big into recovery were the exception, whereas now the guys that are a little like Claw are very much the exception.

"It's almost a different sport in some ways, particularly in the last few years under Joe."

Thirteen years later, O'Connell has gained perspective through experience and through fatherhood.

When pressed for his memories, there was the first Triple Crown against Scotland in 2004, England at Croke Park in 2007, the consistency of taking Southern Hemisphere scalps in November.

The ones that stand-out, however, are those he's been able to share with his son Paddy, just like an old team-mate once did with his son Luke.

"This Six Nations particularly when Paddy was able to come into the dressing-room after big wins against France and England and hang around," he recalled. "I remember The Claw doing that with Luke when he was young and I was young."

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