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'I’m getting a shot, we’ll see how it goes' - Remembering Paul O'Connell's Ireland debut

Twenty years ago, a young Paul O’Connell won his first Test cap in a Six Nations clash with Wales at Lansdowne Road.

Paulie-3

DAVID HUMPHREYS TAKES a quick look up and kicks to the corner. It’s 3 February, 2002, the opening weekend of the Six Nations, and with just over 20 minutes on the clock Ireland are already 13-0 up on Wales thanks to an early Geordan Murphy try, with Humphreys adding a conversion and two penalties.

Having already seen lock Chris Wyatt and centre Jamie Robinson limp off the pitch, Wales are in real trouble, and Ireland sense opportunity.

From the lineout, Frankie Sheahan’s throw is easily gathered by the 6’6” frame of debutant Paul O’Connell, who feeds the ball down to the Ireland pack before joining the maul, regathering possession and muscling his way over the line.

Back in Limerick, they raise a pint in The Corner Flag pub on Henry Street. O’Connell’s call-up to the international squad and sudden elevation to the starting team had triggered a rush for tickets in the city, with Young Munster club members directing as many of the golden tickets as they could in the direction of the O’Connell family.

The Young Munster players who had recently called O’Connell a teammate would instead squeeze into The Corner Flag, owned by team manager Eddie Fitzgerald. It was a proud day for the club.

“Yeah, Wales in Lansdowne Road, a try in the top left-hand corner. He was very good,” remembers Mike Lynch, who was Young Munster captain during O’Connell’s time with the Limerick club.

Their old mate did well, but a head injury brought O’Connell’s first taste of international rugby to a premature end after just 31 minutes. No fear. The 22-year-old would go on to become one of Ireland’s greatest internationals.

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“For an international debut, it was pretty spectacular,” Lynch continues. “Twenty-two, for an outside back that’s young, but for a second row it’s really young. The fact that he was so young may not have registered with us at the time because I think we were just so caught up in the fact that we knew how good he was, and we were aware of how good he could be.”

It took O’Connell just six years to make the journey from newcomer to Test international. A talented swimmer, he took up rugby at the age of 16, learning the sport at Ard Scoil Rís before joining Young Munster, where he found himself togging out alongside Lynch and a core group of seasoned veterans in the rough and tumble of the All-Ireland League.

“The thing that struck all of us was that he absolutely loved the game, and every aspect of it,” Lynch says.

“He always spoke to the older lads as if he was trying to learn from them, and he listened to everybody. He wanted to be the best at everything. He wanted to be the best lineout jumper, the best lineout caller, the best scrummager, the best passer, the fastest – he always wanted to be the best at every single thing he did, even if that thing wasn’t generally part of his remit.

“He wanted to know what was happening everywhere. He was interested in what was happening with the backs’ moves. He wanted to know where are we going next, what’s happening in the next phase, what do we want to achieve out of this and where can I go? He had a studious approach to it, which was infectious. A lot of the lads on that Young Munster team, we were coming to end of our careers, enjoying being there, whereas he was dissecting it. 

“That’s the thing I would single out about him, his determination to be the absolute best at every single facet of the game.” 

O’Connell climbed the Irish rugby ladder remarkably quickly. He made his Munster senior debut in a Celtic League clash against Edinburgh in August 2001. Six months later he was starting a Six Nations match for Ireland, lining up in a pack which contained seven Munster forwards.

People within the game were beginning to talk about O’Connell’s potential, but in the lead up to that Six Nations opener against Wales, fortune also fell his way.

Malcolm O’Kelly picked up an injury in training and Ulster’s Gary Longwell looked set to take his place. Longwell wanted it desperately. A few months previously, Longwell had been in line to start in the foot-and-mouth delayed Six Nations game in Cardiff. Two hours after being informed he was in the team, he came out of a training ground collision with Reggie Corrigan with a nasty finger injury that ruled him out of the game. Longwell asked a team doctor to just amputate the damaged digit, but his request was politely declined. 

As new head coach Eddie Sullivan finalised his plans for Wales, it looked like Longwell would finally get his chance. The Dublin game was set to be the 30-year-old’s ninth Test cap, and first Six Nations start. 

“I was initially named on the bench, then Mal got injured at the start of the week and I was running with Mick Galwey at 4, so you’re thinking you’re in with a real shout at starting,” Longwell explains.

“I was rooming with John Hayes, and I went for a shower one morning while John was sitting in the room. When I came out, John had gone and Eddie O’Sullivan and Brian O’Brien, the team manager, were sitting on the bed. I said ‘Well, you’re not here to speak to John, sure you’re not?’ They explained they were bringing Paul in and that I was staying on the bench.

“So you think you’re getting the start, and then a quick grounding back to the bench. But they had a lot of class. They did it the right way, so I had absolutely no complaints. And history tells its own story, they were 100% right.”

It was a big call to start O’Connell, with his inclusion the one major talking point in O’Sullivan’s team. Ireland had beaten Wales well in the delayed 2001 championship, but games between the two had tended to be tight. Around 15,000 Welsh supporters were due to make the trip over to Dublin, although strong gales would leave many stuck in Wales. The vast majority of those who travelled over would only have had limited knowledge of the rookie redhead in Ireland’s second row.

“It was a huge surprise,” O’Connell told the Irish media in the days leading up to the game. “I was delighted to be on the 22 initially, but when I heard I was starting, it was brilliant. One of the main ambitions I had at the beginning of the year was to get into the Munster side. After that, anything was a bonus. I’m getting a shot, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Twenty years later, Eddie O’Sullivan looks back on that week and laughs at the memory. 

“I suppose if you’re giving a fella a pat on the back for being a good selector, I think that was one of the good calls,” O’Sullivan says.

“There’s always a risk picking someone for their first cap, because sometimes guys look like they’re ready to roll and then you put them in and they struggle, which is not unusual. But for me there was always a sense that Paul was bound to be a permanent fixture of the Irish second row. Our hand was forced a bit by injuries but at the end of the day, I hadn’t too many doubts going in.”

O’Connell was becoming accustomed to making strong first impressions. All these years later, Lynch still speaks warmly about the enthusiastic young fellah who endeared himself to the Young Munster veterans. The season before he became an Ireland international, O’Connell was sharing a pitch with Lynch as a Young Munster player. At 21, he had already graduated from quiet student of the game to vocal leader. His teammates sensed bigger things lay ahead.

frank-fitzgerald-and-paul-oconnell Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

“I remember him below behind the goalposts at Young Munster after training, doing sprints and doing extras,” Lynch says. “Then he was beating at all of us. He was a second row out-sprinting the sprinters, the wingers and the centres. He had that that drive.

“Then when the confidence grew in him, he was standing out and he did take more of that leadership mantle and he was very, very vocal, but what he said was good stuff. He didn’t waste his words.”

Even in the more intense environment of an Ireland international camp, O’Connell stood out. Longwell had played against O’Connell in a Celtic League fixture a couple of month previously but saw a different side to the Munster man when they shared a training pitch.

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gary-longwell Gary Longwell and Paul O'Connell during a Celtic League clash in December 2001. Source: INPHO

“I only knew a wee bit about Paulie,” Longwell says. “The word was on the street. People were talking about him. I remember Paddy Johns saying he rated him after he played against him. 

“It’s the nature of professional sport that you’re always kind of looking over your shoulder at the younger guys coming through, and he was obviously going to be a threat.

“He was ahead of his time in the way he prepared and trained, and that ferocious desire to improve. He was prepared to make mistakes and be vulnerable.

“I think that was the big thing. I remember running a sort of complex drill, and he kept on dropping the ball. I sort of said to him ‘Why don’t you run a support line?’ and he said, ‘No, I’m gonna learn this. I don’t care about making mistakes, I don’t care about dropping it. I’m gonna get better at this and learn it.’ Even then, he was just the ultimate professional. 

“And another thing about him, he was great fun. He was hilarious. He had that ability to switch on and off and you could see how he could lead people, even at that age, you could see that that leadership was in him.”

O’Connell had made just five starts Munster when he was called into the Six Nations squad. Still, O’Sullivan had full faith he was ready to step up to the Test stage, and delivered the good news.

paul-oconnell O'Connell during a training session in the week leading up to his Test debut. Source: INPHO

“The most important thing for a young first capper is to make sure they know what to do,” O’Sullivan explains. “You tell them to just do the simple things, that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to set the world on fire today. 

“I say that to every first cap, because there is always a chance you get a bit overwhelmed or make a mistake and dwell on it, or worry about something that might happen. That’s the nature of being under pressure. But I was never worried that that was going to bother Paul, because you looked at him in the build up to that Wales game and you felt he was going to be pretty comfortable with it.

“The thing that annoyed him most about his first cap was that he didn’t play for 80 minutes.”

O’Connell’s Ireland debut ended just after the half-hour mark, but it should have been over even before he went over for his try. O’Connell caught a stray elbow from Craig Quinnell amidst the chaos of an early maul, but his head injury went unnoticed as the lock played on unperturbed.

paul-oconnell O'Connell leaves the field with a head injury. Source: INPHO

As the opening period wore on his teammates noticed O’Connell wasn’t quite on the same page as they prepared for a lineout. The team doctors assessed him on the sideline and quickly told him he day was done.

“He was adamant he didn’t want to come off, because he thought the game had only been on two or three minutes,” O’Sullivan continues. 

He had no memory of scoring the try. He was arguing the whole way with the doc, Mick Griffin, about not coming off. Even at half-time in the medical room, he didn’t believe that he had scored a try, they had to show him the replay on television to convince him he had scored.”

“I came on at that stage and Ireland were well in the lead and we continued to dominate, Longwell says. “He laid the platform, then I just had to come on and do my job.”  

In his 30 minutes on the pitch, O’Connell had made his mark.

“He wasn’t quite the athlete he became because he was so young, but that wasn’t really a factor because he was excellent in the lineout and had all the basics,” O’Sullivan adds. 

“But the thing for me was his workrate was colossal, and his aggression. Second rows, apart from their set-piece work, it’s really down to them going around the field and making an impact, whether it’s carrying the ball or making tackles or cleaning rucks. He had that fierce intensity in his workrate and that incredible aggression, and aggression in a sense that he put his body on the line every time during the game. 

“Some players do it now and then, they hit a couple of big rucks and a couple of big tackles, but Paul brought the full weight of himself every time he was involved. He wasn’t such a big guy back then, but that didn’t stop him throwing his body on the line.”

Even with their influential new second row out of the picture, Ireland powered on to a 54-10 win over Wales.

After the game, O’Connell swapped his gear for the official team shirt and blazer and met his parents and girlfriend, now wife, Emily, in the team hotel. He watched Brian O’Brien present Peter Clohessy with his 50th cap before moving on to the team dinner, where IRFU President Roy Lougheed handed O’Connell his first Ireland cap. With the formalities done, the players carried the party on to Leopardstown’s Club 92, with O’Connell taking it easy on the drinks after his head knock. 

Just like that, the day was over, and O’Connell had taken the first step on his international rugby journey. He traveled back to Limerick with Munster team-mate John Hayes, unaware his concussion would leave him facing a three-week layoff and rule him out of the trip to play England in Twickenham.

He won three further caps in 2002 and played 11 times for Ireland the following year as O’Sullivan began to build a new team, with O’Connell a central figure. He came off the bench against Australia in June 2003, and a week later was back in the starting team to play Tonga. He wouldn’t start another Test game on the bench until the 2008 Six Nations five years later, by which point he had already hit the 50-cap mark.

“He was a strong personality (when he came in),” O’Sullivan continues. “And he was around guys like Peter Clohessy, Keith Wood, Mick Galwey, David Humphreys was there. There was a few really well established guys, but the previous year or so we had had a good influx of new faces. John Hayes got capped, Shane Horgan, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Simon Easterby [all debuted in 2000]. So it wasn’t a hugely experienced team, but he had quite strong opinions. Even doing restarts and stuff, he would have his opinions on where he wanted to stand. 

He was happy enough to put himself forward with opinions, which I thought was good for a guy at a young age. If he felt that confident about himself – and he was certainly able to back it up on the field – you started thinking that this guy is possibly captain material as well.

“He wanted to get better and better and better, and he wanted to be the best he could be. That was evident early on and he was incredibly competitive. And that gave him a lot of gravitas around the squad. He had a lot of guys looking up to him almost immediately because he was a great example, even as a young player, to the guys around him and then he’d back it up on the field.”

O’Connell went on to win 108 caps for Ireland and captain the British and Irish Lions before retiring due to injury in 2016 at the age of 36. He won three Six Nations and one Grand Slam, and well as two Heineken Cups and three league titles with Munster.

“I always felt from the off that he was destined for those lofty heights, because he had all the raw materials, even though when he started for Ireland at that young age, you can’t say that he’s going to get so many caps or play with the Lions and all of this,” O’Sullivan says.

“You can’t predict those things, but when they actually happened I wasn’t a bit surprised. For me, it was evident. You could tell he was cut from that cloth very early on.”

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