RUGBY legend Paul O’Connell refused to rule out a return to education after receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick.
The Limerick man, 36, was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science at a ceremony in front of an audience of invited guests this Thursday, which included Irish head coach Joe Schmidt, Munster players past and present, including Doug Howlett and David Wallace, Mayor of Limerick, Cllr Liam Galvin, plus his family and friends, including wife Emily, son Paddy and daughter Lola.
Dr Paul joins a long list of honorary conferees and is the 100th person to receive such an honour from UL, a roll call that includes former Irish coach Declan Kidney, who rang the now former Irish and Munster captain before the ceremony to wish him well.
“I am delighted, I am a bit overwhelmed by it. I had a look through the list of previous conferees - it is great company that I will be keeping. I had a lovely phone call from Declan Kidney this morning - I was at his conferring previously,” said Paul.
“I am delighted and a little embarrassed - I am looking forward to the day, I suppose it is a really positive day.”
O’Connell, who won 108 Irish caps over a glorious Irish career, said that the University, where he completed three of four years of a computer engineering degree before professional rugby came calling in 2001, had played a “big part” in his life.
“When you grow up in Limerick, the University ends up being a big part of your life, even if you don’t go here as a student,” he said.
“To get appreciated by your home university is something that is very special. I have played in teams all my life, great Munster and Irish teams and to be getting individual honours sometimes when you play a team sport is a bit strange and it can be a bit embarrassing because you are never in that situation, it is never about the individual when you are part of a team.
“So days like this, when you are put out there on your own are a little embarrassing, but a brilliant honour at the same time.”
Patienty addressing the gathered media throng for almost 30 minutes before the ceremony, the Limerick man laughed when asked if he would be “demanding” his family address him by his new title.
“I won’t be demanding that they call me Dr Paul. That is a question everyone keeps asking me. I think everyone is delighted with the honour, that is what Declan Kidney said to me, it is only when the day comes around and the immediate aftermath of it, you realise what a big honour it is. I think all my family and friends are delighted for me,” he said.
For 15 years the Munster icon has trained almost daily on campus in UL, and indeed has a long association with the campus that dates back his days as a swimmer in the original PESS swimming pool as a four or five year old, he explained.
Asked about a break with that routine now with his move to Toulon in the offing - albeit with months of rehab for his injury ahead of him - he said simply: “It is part of life, part of the circle of life.
“I think the Toulon move is something I gave a lot of thought to and I swayed back and forth as to whether it was the right thing or the wrong thing to do. But I think for whatever I want to do for the rest of my life, I think I will be all the better for having this experience and it is something I am really looking forward to,” he said.
“Limerick will always be my home and it will always be somewhere I would like to come back to.”
Asked if he would be tempted to return to study after receiving the honour, Paul said it could be a possibility once his rugby career finishes for good.
“Yeah, I think about it a lot and it is a big regret of mine that I didn’t finish my degree,” he said.
“So many of the boys in the Munster and Irish team are studying, they are all either finishing degrees or doing masters and they would embarrass you a little bit.
“But I have had good excuses with having two kids and having a senior role in the Irish team and Munster team as well. I have toyed with it, I have come in and spoken to the University plenty of times about the possibility of coming back and doing various things and I cooled on the idea as well. But I probably have 18 months left playing rugby and I will be taking a little bit of time out after that and who knows, I could end up back here as a student as well,” he admitted.
UL President Professor Don Barry paid tribute to the rugby legend, who has been a director of the UL Foundation since 2011, saying that the occasion was an “opportunity to honour those who have inspired, who have led with courage and passion and who have made great contributions in their fields of endeavour.
“Much thought, consideration and deliberation goes into deciding who is worthy - except when it is a real-life super hero, and particularly when his name is Paul O’Connell.
“Today I am very proud that UL bestowed upon Paul our highest honour. He was already an important member of the UL family, but today he accepted a place in the history of this institution,” he added.