OpinionRoy Curtis

OPINION: Why rugby hero Paul O'Connell made us all want to be better

Always on the charge, always inspiring those around him
Always on the charge, always inspiring those around him

That his freckled, shaven, crown towered majestically skyward like the dome of a great renaissance cathedral really had very little to do with Paul O’Connell being deferred to as a giant among men.

For his alpine physique was dwarfed by those Himalayan qualities he exhibited as a leader of his congregation.

 As a shaper of destiny, a superior inspiration, in his unfailing ambition to achieve something remarkable, as a designate of the highest standards, O’Connell soared like a Nepalese range.

On Paulie’s bicep, a captain’s armband became uranium-enriched, a nuclear weapon behind which Munster, Ireland, the Lions went to war.

O’Connell was a firewall against the flames of fear, a levee the floodwaters of despair could not breach.

That he has been compelled to announce that the reel has run, that the epic 15-year opera of his sporting life will have no final crescendo, no last 21-gun salute in the military town of Toulon, will have them urgently rearranging the furniture in the Hall of Fame.

Even in such a palace of excellence, his rightful place, after a stellar 108-cap Irish career, after all those years as the emblem of Munster defiance, as an enricher of so many lives, is in the penthouse suite.

O’Connell was a grandmaster of the second-row:  A freakish athlete, a line-out colossus, ferocious at the breakdown, unbending in defence, a Coolmore thoroughbred with a workhorse’s tireless ethic.

When it was required he did not shirk – as Jamie Cudmore found out one memorable Limerick afternoon – from being an enforcer.  Opponents quickly learned he was not a man with whom to trifle.

That immortal 2007 freeze-frame of him soaring into the cosmos above Croke Park to fetch a line-out delivery, the scoreboard in the background delivering its neon confirmation of the unfolding slaughter, encapsulated an historic afternoon against England.

O'Connell was head of the pride of Lions that toured South Africa in 2009

It might also have been a metaphor for a life less ordinary.

Here was a man who climbed higher than his peers, who stared down the most dangerous of foes, whose deeds were a vitamin-rush for the national soul.

O’Connell oozed the qualities – tangible and intangible – that enable a man to make the deepest connection with his audience, that persuade the flock that they have found their shepherd.

And that send a charge of emotion, a jolt of pride, a sense of shared place through those in the bleachers aligned to the teams he led.   

He was the field-marshal who, through deed or word, found a way to drench the trenches with hope, with yearning and, having instinctively calibrated the requirement of the hour, calm or fury.

Invariably, each time he pulled a uniform over his shoulders, those around him felt enlarged:  His presence, his reputation, the imperishable qualities he brought to each game, each training session, compelled others to strain for the stars, to squeeze every last blob of industry from the tube, to leave nothing – not one solitary atom of effort - behind in the pursuit of all they could be.  

Paulie made teams and team-mates better.  The relentless waves of his self-belief eroded the boulders of Irish inferiority. And all the while he filled those in the stands with the heart-soar of joy.

He was the man every other Irishman wished they might be.

If O’Connell had a euro for every time he sent a collective shiver of pride down the spine of the Celtic tribe, he would have abundant fiscal space to change the world.

Soaring highest against England on an historic night at Croke Park in 2007

Even without that monetary injection, the competitive lifeblood that surged so abundantly through his veins delivered great transfusions of optimism, bestowed endless riches, enabled him alter the part of the planet with which he will be forever most closely associated.

Along with Ronan O’Gara, he was the face of Munster’s glory years: The 2006 and 2008 conquests of Europe; those spirit-feasting days behind enemy lines when he appeared enlarged by the tumult, when the bearing of a natural-born champion oozed from every pore.

He gifted Ireland the days of its rugby life: The Munster/Leinster alliance of O’Connell and O’Driscoll was an entente cordiale between red and blue which seemed to paint Europe green: Triple Crowns, Six Nations titles and, in 2009, a first Grand Slam in 61 years flowed like tributaries into the great, overflowing river of national glory.

Together these lions of winter pushed out the boundaries, drove the oval-ball game from the margins to the mainstream, made rugby a reference point for the mood of the Irish people.

Munster's Paul O'Connell and Clermont's Canadian second-row giant Jamie Cudmore get acquainted in the Heineken Cup in 2008 

And always O’Connell carried himself with uplifting integrity.

If some of the old-school-tie boneheads who populate the boulevards of rugby’s self-important landscape created the canvass upon which the cutting brushstrokes of Paul Howard’s wit so brilliantly lampoon the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly sense of entitlement, O’Connell never remotely surrendered to that faux-culture of superior privilege.

He inhabited another, more dignified, rounded space.

To this observer, it was as if he brought some of the very best of the GAA – that sense of place, the parish identity, the umbilical-cord that connects superstar to supporter – to his chosen code.

Without the fundamental decency, the innate intelligence that steered him clear of the vacuous celebrity pit, O’Connell could not have touched so many people or effortlessly commanded such universal respect.  

It was as if his capacity to inspire gushed from an infinite reservoir of good sense, or from a faucet of understanding that was never in danger of running dry.

O’Connell arrived on Planet Rugby like an ambassador from the gods.

It hardly required a forensic search to locate the essence of his transcendence:  He combined with his greatness as an athlete, an unconditional loyalty to the flag he followed, a fidelity to his uniformed brothers, an understanding that not to lead by example was not to lead at all.

O’Connell was – is – selfless, brave, a Trojan of duty.  He played with a monumental disregard for his own safety, a disdain for shortcuts, an absence of fear, a high-octane intensity, an unflinching, everything-I-have-commitment that was beautiful, inspirational.

The qualities he brought to the arena suggested he had been poured from some celestial mould where leaders are shaped.

Now, finally, the body buffeted by so many battles, which was always the first one we sought out in the coliseum, has said no more.

But not before it transported Paul O’Connell into that sun-kissed room in the national soul reserved for the better part of us, for those who truly made a difference, who – day after day, month after month year after year – made life so much more enriching, who filled hearts with joy.