Paul O’Connell finds his reward for believing

Alan English, editor

Reporter:

Alan English, editor

Paul O’Connell finds his reward for believing
IT wasn’t a surprise that Paul O’Connell’s emotions were high in the aftermath of Munster’s victory at The Stoop, because the prospect of the match was what kept him going in the tough weeks and months when injury laid him so low he spent most of January on his back.

IT wasn’t a surprise that Paul O’Connell’s emotions were high in the aftermath of Munster’s victory at The Stoop, because the prospect of the match was what kept him going in the tough weeks and months when injury laid him so low he spent most of January on his back.

In the weeks after his back operation on New Year’s Day, O’Connell had a routine. Unable to train and ordered to rest, he would spend the day lying low and then, in the evening, he’d go walking – hood up and headphones on.

For the kids who congregate around the park at Newtown, Annacotty, he became a familiar sight. He was absolutely determined to do everything in his power to have himself ready for the battle with Harlequins. Sunday brought thrilling evidence that he had succeeded – gloriously.

It’s not that long since every pub in Limerick had experts who said with certainty that the big man was finished, all washed up. The word on the street was that Munster knew it was over for him, but they were refusing to admit it publicly because they were afraid of what it might do to attendances.

Unfounded rumours and wild speculation have accompanied O’Connell throughout his extraordinary career, but reports of his demise have proved greatly exaggerated. Even though the last few years have been tough, he has always believed himself that he would get back to his finest form, given a little luck.

Singleminded dedication has long been a measure of the man. The stakes for Munster on Sunday were huge but O’Connell had another reason to be at his imposing best. It was imperative that he produce a standout performance if he was to be considered for the British and Irish Lions squad that will take on Australia in the summer.

O’Connell, the captain in 2009 when the Lions so narrowly lost the series to South Africa, would dearly love to be part of a winning Lions team. If there is any justice in the world, he will now get that chance.

Certainly, the watching Lions coach Warren Gatland cannot but have marvelled at his performance as the Engliish champions were put to the sword.

The new Munster coach Rob Penney was unlucky to be deprived of O’Connell’s services for much of the season and spoke generously about the man whose return has galvanised the team’s season.

“He has this empathetic outlook on life. He sees things through other people’s eyes, and he has this understanding that makes everyone feel good to be around him,” Penney said. “You couple that with his rugby ability and he is just a really complete man.”

When he was interviewed shortly after the final whistle, O’Connell seized the chance to speak up for the young guns who have now emphatically arrived as the future of Munster.

He recognised the significance of what had happened – the team hadn’t just won a quarter-final, they had stepped out of the long shadow cast by legends no longer on the pitch.

“It means so much to these young guys. There are so many people doubting them, on their back every week. I know how hard they work, I know how much it means to them and their families. Today is a very special day,” he said.

There will, you sense, be more special days. And O’Connell, on this evidence, will be around to share in them.