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Pro12 trophy would be typical farewell from Munster legend O'Connell

The 35-year-old plays for Munster for the final time at Kingspan Stadium this evening.

AND SO THE Paul O’Connell era ends for Munster.

The man who has done more than most to earn the tag of ‘legend’ will just be desperate to ensure his time with his native provinces ends on a winning note, another trophy in the cabinet at Thomond Park before he checks out.

Paul O'Connell celebrates O'Connell has had some memorable days in Munster's red. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Supporters from around Munster will each have their own standout memory of this epoch; a day from the early flame-haired years, the 2006 or 2008 Heineken Cup triumphs, his stunning performance against Harlequins in 2013, maybe even the time he went to-to-toe with Jamie Cudmore.

Those moments on the pitch will be greatly missed, but the loss of O’Connell to Munster in the less visible circumstances is perhaps going to be most telling of all.

It was Leo Cullen, the captain of Munster’s great rivals Leinster, who said “leadership is what you do everyday.” O’Connell was Munster’s living example of that.

While we know that the 35-year-old has always been able to deliver a rallying speech or words to bring grown men to tears when that is required, it’s not the essence of leading a group of players.

Instead, O’Connell understood the importance of the less lauded things like bringing enthusiasm to training every single day, attacking his video analysis with motivation week-to-week, learning from coaches with eagerness month-after-month and bringing physical energy year-on-year.

Others were driven by his standards, wanting to live up to them, match them, even surpass them if they could.

To speak of O’Connell’s influence on others is not to detract from his own playing ability, however. Having started as a lively gazelle of a lock, O’Connell has slowly developed into the complete second row.

Paul O'Connell O'Connell in Thomond Park during the week. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

His technical excellence has grown with each passing season as he’s continued to bring his thirst for learning to each of the core rugby skills. Whether taking chop tackling tips from Dan Lydiate, testing his short passing game or bringing rucking efficiency to a whole new level, O’Connell has improved like a fine red wine.

His ball carrying was so often seen as a weakness in the past, fairly so, but he’s just had the best season of his life in that regard, coming around the corner at greater pace but also picking the soft shoulder more intelligently and winning inches on the deck post-tackle.

Toulon are no mugs in the recruitment game and they are getting a lock who remains genuinely world-class for their hundreds of thousands of euros. Indeed, some might argue that this has been the finest season of O’Connell’s career or at least his most rounded.


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The major deficiency in the Champions Cup victors’ game this campaign has been a failing lineout, constantly a thorn in their side. O’Connell will sort that swiftly.

His study of this area of the game crept over the obsessive borderline years ago; few in the world understand the mechanics, techniques and theory of the lineout better than O’Connell.

All of that makes it harder for Munster to accept losing him, but generally the feeling we’ve come across so far has been a majority of well wishes from those who feels he ‘owes Irish rugby nothing’.

There are others with a different viewpoint on O’Connell’s departure and we shouldn’t just dismiss that stance as invalid. For some, the second row leaving will slightly tarnish their affection for him, though it’s doubtful he’ll lose any sleep over it.

Paul O'Connell salutes the crowd after the game It's farewell from O'Connell this evening. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For O’Connell is highly unlikely to have any regrets over heading to France. He will win on the pitch as Toulon’s squad continues to improve under the loving eye of Mourad Boudjellal and he will win a life experience off it that his family will thank him for.

Those with doubts over why O’Connell is making this decision ought to rustle up the kitty required to visit the Côte d’Azur and they’ll understand pretty quickly. If that’s not an option, just take a glance at Matt Giteau’s Instagram account.

It’s not all about putting the feet up beside the pool and overlooking the sea in between Top 14 dogfights and intermittent training sessions for O’Connell though. He will relish the opportunity to see a different way of doing things.

The mental, physical and utterly emotional approach of French rugby week-to-week might be jarring for him to begin with, but it will leave him with a far more nuanced understand of rugby two years down the line.

We can be certain that O’Connell is already firmly making plans for life post-retirement and whether it’s in coaching or another walk of life, getting out of Ireland and seeing how others live will change him for the better.

That’s all to come, but right now O’Connell will be thinking as professionally as he always has done.

Set the tone, lead the standards, chop them low, work-rate, work-rate, win.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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