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Was a dream farewell too much to ask for 'Gladiator' Paul O'Connell?

What he did in his career, will echo in Irish Rugby eternity.

‘IF YOU FIND yourself alone, riding in green fields with the sun in your face. Do not be troubled, for you are in Elysium and you are already dead.’

Ireland's Paul O'Connell Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Was it too much to ask that Paul O’Connell would walk off into a Mediterranean sunset? Is the Elysium for forwards too peaceful and perfect an end to a rugby career of such carnage?

Irish rugby’s finest ever leader today announced his retirement from rugby after four months attempting to mend his 36-year-old hamstrings from the most violent of injuries.

Rugby, of course, is a game. It’s not a matter of life and death – merely a helpful distraction from grave matters – so the ending of the above quote is somewhat misplaced.

The thing about O’Connell though, is that he earned the lasting respect of rugby fans, analysts, team-mates and opponents because he never laced up his boots treating the game as anything less than the most crucial 80 minutes he would ever face in his line of work.

To chart the Limerick man’s time in rugby is to examine the professional era itself in Ireland: from Munster’s European journey, to Ireland in Croke Park, Triple Crowns, a Grand Slam and a back-to-back, that’s just a teaser trailer for the O’Connell era.

When he made his debut for Munster in August 2001, his native province had already been to a Heineken Cup final and Ulster had won one. But speak with any player from that time and there is a consensus that the official genesis of the pro game in 1995 was ignored until the 21st century was well under way. And with Munster hounding the elite teams in Europe, O’Connell was at the forefront of a cultural change.

Paul OÕConnell with the trophy Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In today’s interview with RTE’s Michael Corcoran, he recognises the ‘strange’ feeling of being retired by the sudden drop in the standards of his diet. Through the years, O’Connell’s message to team-mates young and old was consistent: The four hours in and around the training ground are the easy part, but the remaining 20 hours in a day are just as important.

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While ‘The Fear of God’ and a speech that brought last year’s World Cup squad to tears are the stuff of legend, O’Connell, on and off the field, led by example.

Having set the emotional tone for Ireland’s fierce Rugby World Cup pool performance against France, O’Connell was subjected to the worst pain he has felt in his career. He kept trying to push himself back to his feet until the medics arrived to assess his final injury.

Paul O'Connell tries to get to his feet before being stretchered off the field Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Nobody in the Millennium Stadium that day believed he would play for Ireland again. But as he was stretchered off, we were at least allowed to dream of O’Connell back in a red jersey, extending his time in sport surrounded by some of world’s best players in warm sunshine of Toulon.

Many Irish players hint at moving abroad, some leave with a bad taste in the mouth for all sides. But few, if anybody, begrudged O’Connell the change of scenery. He had pushed Munster to the very top, and the hope was that he might get his hands on a few more medals to adorn the mantelpiece before his body finally refused to do what his mind willed it to.

Paul O'Connell salutes the crowd after the game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Instead, after months of hard work trying to think positive and repair his hamstring, the dream ended and reality took hold.

The Gladiator bowed out in the heat of battle.

‘I consider myself very lucky’ — O’Connell ready to improve golf game after dominating Irish rugby

Archive>>  Farewell to Paul O’Connell, the greatest leader Ireland ever had

Archive>> O’Connell’s greatest days were the ones his son shared the taste of victory

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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