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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 18 April, 2019
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POC: Toulon supporters are similar to Munster fans in that they love the team

The legendary lock sees lots of likenesses between Munster and his new club.

PAUL O’CONNELL DOESN’T know the words to ‘Pilou Pilou’ just yet but he has the next two seasons to learn every line of Toulon’s famous pre-match war chant.

The incantation was penned by Marcel Bodrero, a former RCT player, and is now led by Cédric Abellon before home games at Stade Mayol. Abellon doubles as tattoo artist to many of Toulon’s players, with his art adorning the skin of Mathieu Bastareaud and Steffon Armitage.

General view of the Pilou Pilou Cédric Abellon leads 'Pilou Pilou' for Toulon. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It remains to be seen if O’Connell joins the club’s ink brothers, but he will certainly be touched by Abellon’s work at Mayol.

“We the terrible Pilou Pilou warriors… who descend from the mountain to the sea,” goes the chant as it describes the landscape of Toulon, which has a population of less than 200,000 people.

“With our disheveled women breastfeeding our children in the shadow of the great white coconut trees… we the terrible warriors sing our ruthless war song.”

It can be intimidating on the big occasions and O’Connell is hugely looking forward to experiencing the atmosphere at Mayol before his debut for his new club. With his hamstring healing well, the Irishman hopes he might don Toulon’s red in January or February.

It won’t be O’Connell’s first time playing at Toulon’s home ground later this season, and he recalls an imposing atmosphere when Munster visited in 2011 and came away with a 32-16 defeat that meant they dropped out of the Heineken Cup at the pool stage.

“It is right up there with anything I have experienced on the biggest days in Thomond Park,” said O’Connell yesterday. “When we played here in 2011, at the Mayol, we were very badly beaten but the crowd were amazing.

“The walk into the crowd was very intimidating and I’d say very motivating for the home players. Same in Marseille two years ago (when Toulon beat Munster in the Heineken Cup semi-finals); the fans were amazing.

“I think they are similar to the Munster fans in that they love the team, they really get behind the team, it is a big part of the identity of the city. I mean in Limerick and Cork, Munster Rugby plays a massive role there. It’s probably one of the big things I am looking forward to; playing in Mayol and experiencing the crowd.”

Paul O'Connell O'Connell likened the Toulon fans to those who frequent Thomond Park. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Speaking at his official unveiling in Toulon yesterday, O’Connell underlined again that it had been “a big decision” for him to come to the Top 14. Having arrived in France to begin his new challenge, he says he’s delighted at opting for a move to RCT.

O’Connell’s serious injury at the World Cup, when his hamstring detached from the bone, put the already-confirmed move to Toulon in some initial doubt, and the Limerick man says he shared in that feeling when he went down against France.

“There’s no doubt when the injury happened I thought to myself, would I get back or would I recover? Luckily for me, the surgery was a success and it’s been feeling very, very good now for about two weeks. So there was doubts but I’m fairly confident now that it is going to come right and I’m really looking forward to it.”

The expectation now is of a debut in January or February, far sooner than anticipated even after surgery, but O’Connell will get to work immediately now that he is on site in France.

While there is frustration in being sidelined of course, O’Connell says he has enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with his family and mentally ready himself for “one last big push in my career.”

Famously diligent in his analysis, rehabilitation, nutrition, goal setting, mental preparation, and injury prevention work, O’Connell hopes he can add those important elements to this Toulon group.

He remains a complete second row, but perhaps the most important quality he brings to Toulon as a player is his ability to prepare and run a high-quality lineout.

“I am here to help out any way I can,” said O’Connell. “I think it there are a lot of talented players here already. I don’t think anyone is going to expect me to run the length of the pitch and sidestep a fullback or anything like that.

Paul O'Connell down injured O'Connell's Ireland career ended in severe injury. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Hopefully I can help out in the lineout, help out in the set-piece, help out in analysis. I really enjoy rugby, I enjoy preparing. Hopefully if I can show that to the other players and lead by example, I would love to do that as well.”

O’Connell’s unveiling meant an interesting afternoon for French journalists, although they are well accustomed to new foreign players arriving into Mourad Boudjellal’s glittering squad.

Rob Henderson had an enjoyable season with RCT in 2006/07 when they were still in the Pro D2, but O’Connell is certainly the most high-profile Irishman to sign for the club. Asked what had impressed him about Toulon, O’Connell again referred to his home province.

“Obviously (Toulon are) an incredible team and I think, most of all, an incredible spirit. I think that’s probably the thing I identify with most. Whenever I’ve played against Toulon – I’ve played against them twice – I’ve lost both times.

“There’s world-class players here, world-class French players and world-class international players, but when they play for Toulon they seem to give it everything. It’s the same as I would have done in Munster and the same as everyone would have done in Munster.

“I suppose it’s easier in Munster because you’ve grown up in the area and it’s where you come from. I think that’s the most admirable thing here, that players move down and they just seem to buy into it really well and play with a lot of heart and spirit.”

It would have been nice for O’Connell to make his Toulon debut last weekend or this coming Saturday against his old rivals Leinster, and it would certainly have added a few tickets sales in Dublin.

O’Connell laughed when he was asked if he will provide any detailed information on Leinster to his coach Bernard Laporte and his new teammates.

Paul O'Connell O'Connell will hope to bring his inimitable leadership to Toulon. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I don’t think they need my help! I thought they did a good job last week in tough conditions, but I think this will be an even bigger challenge. I think there’s 46,000 tickets sold, there’ll probably be 50,000 at the game, it’ll be a full house.

“It will be the biggest game of Leinster’s season, even though they only have a slim chance of qualifying now. It will be the biggest game of their season and I’m sure Toulon realise that, but I haven’t got a lot of advice to offer at the moment that Bernard and the guys don’t know already.”

O’Connell hopeful of return early in 2016 as he begins new life in Toulon

Munster and Ireland legend Paul O’Connell has been unveiled as a Toulon player

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Murray Kinsella

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