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'They don't take it easy on me in training just 'cause I'm that bit older'

Paul O’Connell speaks to The42 about motivating yourself for training after 14 seasons as a professional.

Paul O'Connell does not take it easy in training, despite his age.
Paul O'Connell does not take it easy in training, despite his age.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

HIS LEGS STRETCHED out before him like the recently saved Poolbeg chimneys, Paul O’Connell cuts a relaxed figure when we sit down to discuss what keeps his 35-year old body going after 14 tough seasons in professional rugby.

When you get to the twilight of your career — and O’Connell remains tight-lipped as to how close he is to calling time on his — it would be easy to phone it in, use the niggling aches and pains that must surely always be there as an excuse not to train as hard as you did when you were a decade younger.

But having taken part in a Bikram Yoga session earlier in the morning, it’s clear the Limerick man is not the type to take short cuts and says that his place as a team leader means the Munster coaches and management trust him to do the work required.

“They don’t go easier on me but they trust me. They are guided by me maybe a bit more than a younger, less experienced player. Rather than get handed the programme, I can sit down with them and say ‘look, I’d like to do a bit more to this, a bit less of that’ but they’ll have their own ideas as well so it’s about striking a balance.

“There are times when, maybe, I’ve been guilty of overdoing it a little bit and putting my body under pressure but the objective of the game is to be on the pitch to play and I probably missed on some games early on because of that.

“Rugby is a contact sport so injuries are inevitable, be it in training or in a match. But when you pick up an injury from over-doing it in the gym it’s soul-destroying. There’s nothing you can do if you get injured in a tackle but when it happens when you’re trying to keep fit it’s incredibly frustrating.”

Paul O’Connell Paul O'Connell is an ambassador for the new adidas Climachill range of clothing. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Given his length of time involved in both the Munster and Ireland set-up, O’Connell has seen huge advancements in sports science and statistical analysis, both of which are a long way from the ‘gut’ instinct coaches used to rely on in the past.

The move towards a more exact sport, he says, can only be a good thing.

“I’ve definitely seen the evolution of the science and, of course, data is such a big thing now. When we train, we’ve GPS units on your back so every metre we cover is measured and, when we go into a tackle, the G-forces of the hits are measured.

“Because of that, rather than a strength and conditioning coach saying ‘I think the lads are a bit tired today’ they can actually look back into the data and can see that, yeah, the player in question did cover a lot of yards today or the game on Saturday was really tough.

“That’s a big thing and I think recovery is too. 15 years ago, it was all about getting out there and working as hard as you could. It’s still about working hard but we now know how important recovery is afterwards.”

Unlike some sportspeople, who dread the thoughts of preseason, O’Connell says that keeping the body — and, more importantly, the mind — ticking over during the season is actually greater challenge.

“Preseason is hard no matter what age you are but I actually don’t find it as difficult as in season training. During the season you’ve got matches which bring their own pressure, mental stresses which are a lot more difficult than the physical stresses of preseason.

“If you just work hard and you can switch your mind off in the evening or after the weekend when you’ve had a match that helps, but the next game and how you’ve got to perform in it is always running in the back of your mind.”

However, the evolution in the physique of rugby players, with modern day centres the size of back row forwards when O’Connell first started playing, means the 35-year old will leave behind a much more physically demanding game than the one he started playing for Ard Scoil Ris as a teenager.

“Certainly at international level the game is becoming intensely physical and, in the past, those guys may have faded out of games but not now. Add to that the fact you’re that bit more tired because you’re hitting these big, strong, impact players coming off the bench.

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“From that point of view, it’s becoming a tougher and tougher game to play.”

When he’s away from the sport, O’Connell admits to finding it a bit easier to switch off than he did when he was younger, especially in the wake of a poor performance.

“I’ve a young family now, two kids, and switching off has never been easier and more enjoyable. I’d actually say there’s nothing I enjoy more than the day after a game — especially if we’ve won — spending time with my family, playing games and having a bit of craic.”

“When your single, you can wallow in it if you haven’t won but I’ve no choice now, I’ve to get up early with the kids and have a bit of fun.”

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Irish rugby international Paul O’Connell launches the new adidas Climachill product range. When it comes to performance, every degree matters, the new Climachill product range makes sure athletes can perform at their best regardless of heat, through new age design and material selection for maximum cooling.

Climachill is the next generation of active-cooling sportswear and is available now from Life Style Sports and www.adidas.ie.

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