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Monday 18 December 2017

O'Connell: 'we want to go out with bang at Croker'

As the curtain falls on rugby's time at GAA HQ, Paul O'Connell targets a final hurrah for the ever-lasting memories

The day is almost here when Ireland will leave Croke Park and migrate back to the bosom of their one true home across the Liffey, the newly reconstructed Aviva Stadium.

The history of this country is signposted by the changes within it. The progress of a modern nation and a once not-so-modern organisation, the GAA, is judged on moving on from that which held us back in the past.

At the centre of the overall growth and expansion of rugby in Ireland is the player, the flesh and bones of our heroes stretched and broken for our entertainment so that we, with them, can celebrate what we are and where we come from.

Of course, Ireland's Paul O'Connell is playing, first and foremost, to satisfy his own ambition. He does this by working within the framework of self-improvement and the selfless nature of team sport.



DEBUT

It has always been this way since he laced his boots at his club, Young Munster, and his school, Ardscoil Ris in Limerick, right up to the proud moment he walked out behind his Young Munster team-mate Peter Clohessy on the occasion of the Claw's 50th cap to make his Ireland debut on February 2, 2002.

"It is eight years now. It is still as enjoyable and challenging as the day I got my first cap," said O'Connell.

It was also coach Eddie O'Sullivan's first match in charge of Ireland. It couldn't have gone any better for either of them. O'Connell scored a try in the 54-10 record-breaking win over Wales. The only problem was he was concussed at the time. He has no memory of his first try for his country.

"I couldn't remember it. I do remember being on the sideline, looking up at the clock counting down. There were two and a half minutes left," he said. "So I had been on the sideline maybe eight or nine minutes. I turned to the doctor and said I can't come off after two and a half minutes. I thought there were just two and a half minutes gone in the match.

"And he said, 'Right, you're gone.' It was disappointing. But it was a great day nonetheless."

Since then, the second-row has played his part in the success of Munster and Ireland, culminating in his selection as the British and Irish Lions' captain to South Africa last summer.

For the third consecutive game, Ireland will celebrate, perhaps in more muted tones, a milestone, the achievement of O'Connell reaching his 70th cap, shortly after John Hayes and Brian O'Driscoll broke through the century barrier.

"When you are always chasing the little bit of improvement, that is what keeps you motivated. That is how you end up, for John and Brian, with 100 caps or, for me, 70 caps.

"It is such a long time. But you look back and you can't even remember it because you are always chasing something all the time."

It is in O'Connell's nature to always look forward to what could be, never back at what was. The carrot has always beaten the stick for a man renowned for his belief and competitive nature. He is driven by a massive internal engine.

"The big thing is to always try and improve. If you aren't trying to do that then how much better you could be could get very boring. That is a big thing for me."

"There is fitness; there are your weights. There are skills; there is tackling. There is rucking, lineouts, kick-offs. There are so many things to improve."

Of course, the slip of time waits for no man. Change is constant in professional sport. If you stand still you die; if you lose your mojo, you're lost.

In the same way, the IRFU and the GAA brokered a beautiful deal that dealt in the romance of history and hard bargain of bang for buck. The time has finally come for Ireland to leave the inner-city northside.



GRATITUDE

The union, the coaches and the players owe a debt of gratitude to the GAA. It is a debt that has been repaid in a financial windfall for the amateur organisation and in the magic of moments that will never be forgotten, such as Shane Horgan's high-fielding try against England in 2007.

It would be deflating for Ireland to go out with a whimper rather than a bang. It would mean a wooden spoon for an improving Scotland and the silver medal of second place in the Six Nations.

"It is important we go out with a good performance; a passionate, emotional performance. We've had a great time there," said the Munsterman.

"We have been very eager to do it justice with the history of the place and the difficulty we had in getting to play there. And that won't change on Saturday."

You better believe it. Paul O'Connell does.

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