Those who know the Ireland captain best explain what's taken him to the top

The words passion, work ethic, drive and determination are ones anyone could use to describe Munster, Ireland and Lions lock Paul O’Connell, but it’s the effort he puts in behind the scenes that has made him such a force. Here those who know him best talk through his journey from Young Munster to Ireland and reveal more about the man behind the legend…

Derek Tobin, family friend
“I was president of Paul’s club, Young Munster, a few years back, and knew his dad and brother, Justin, who also played second-row for us. As a schoolboy Paul was a gangly guy, but on the pitch he had huge potential from the off. He was aggressive and strong.

“Aged 19, he came to play for Young Munster. One of his great pleasures was winning the Junior Cup for us in 1999, in his first year out of school. Even though we had a decent team, it was Paul who made the difference. He broke into the team at an early age, ahead of older guys, but even though it was a year early, Paul is the kind of guy who will take any opportunity that’s given to him.

“Paul is still a fantastic ambassador for Young Munster, and does a lot behind the scenes. He’s down to earth, and comes down to the club every now and then to assist with a session or give guidance to the younger players.”

Mike Prendergast, former Young Munster & Munster team-mate
“I knew Paul throughout school, before we played at Young Munster together. We signed our Munster contracts in the same week in 2001 and, although I went to France for a season, Paul’s been a friend for 16 years.

“He was a super swimmer at school and he used to get up at 4am, four mornings a week. The discipline required for that has stayed with him. At the age of 19, he took a year out of college to train and play full-time, and he bulked up during that time.

“He was young to break into the Munster team, but in 2002, 2003, and 2004 some of his performances were fantastic. We played in a Celtic League semi-final against Ulster. I was a replacement but watched him from the stands. He came of age that day. Even now he’s world class, he’s still working on his game.”

Paul O'Connell

On the rise: O’Connell goes through lineout drills with Munster. Photo: Inpho

Bernard Jackman, former Irish Universities & Ireland team-mate
“I toured with Paul in 1999, with Irish Universities to South Africa, so I’ve known him since he was 19 years old. He’s a guy who’s very driven and focused, and he’s also pretty aggressive. In fact, when he was a youngster at Young Munster, he was a bit over-aggressive. That team is traditionally very physical and their game was built around the pack. He played with people like Peter Clohessy, one of the original hard men, so Paul was brought up in that mould. He’s curbed that and it’s now exceptionally rare to see him lose his cool.

“As a young guy he was quiet, but he migrated quickly to older players and loved being around people like Clohessy and Mick Galwey. He’s always appreciated the old-school traditional values, playing for the jersey and each other. But he also craved that transition into professionalism in Irish rugby. He’s a hybrid of the typical old school and new professional players.”

Mick Galwey, former Munster & Ireland team-mate
“In 2002 we played Stade Français in Paris in the Heineken Cup quarter-final and he was phenomenal that day. We had the experience, but he had enthusiasm. I remember saying to Peter Clohessy, ‘We’ve got a beauty on our hands here.’ Though he was light and gangly as a youngster, it was clear he had something.

“We knew we had someone special from day one. I could see his natural talent and he had a certain amount of aggression, but he’s also a clever player. He knows how to run his team and lineouts, and gets his pack working.

“He’s had some horrible injuries, including an infection in his groin a few years ago, but what I love about him is the way he bounces back. In Australia on the Lions tour, he broke his arm and carried on playing. Perhaps that’s why he’s still going well, he’s had time to recuperate.

“As a senior player he’s conscious that he needs to have a professional image, but he’s witty and loves to slag. He has an exceptional strike on a golf ball, too.”

Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan

Pranksters: O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan strike a pose on a 2004 tour. Photo: Inpho

Paul Wallace, former Ireland team-mate and Leinster opponent
“My first memory of Paul was playing in the inaugural Celtic final in 2001, me for Leinster and he for Munster. It was a bit nasty, in the way those derbies are, and halfway through the first half I was holding up a maul when I got a smash just under my ribs. It was a totally legal shot, and I thought it must’ve been Mick Galwey or one of the other old pros, because whoever it was knew exactly where to hit you where it hurts. I did think it had too much power in it to be Galwey, though. So I turned round, and saw this pumped-up red-headed young fella behind me. I just gave him a nod of appreciation.

“A lot of people think Paul’s this straight-laced guy, but he’s got a wicked sense of humour. Donncha O’Callaghan has taken the credit for some of his exploits. On the Lions tour in 2005, the media man Alastair Campbell had his tracksuit bottoms pulled down, and though everyone assumed it was Donncha, it was really Paul.”

Mal O’Kelly, former Ireland team-mate and Leinster opponent
“I first came across Paul when I was playing club rugby for St Mary’s. He plays with his heart on his sleeve, and always voiced ideas in meetings. Lots of guys try to speak and motivate but it doesn’t come so naturally. He’s a natural leader, who leads by example. Sometimes he carried the team kicking and screaming to victory.

“At club level, Paul quickly became a force in the lineout. He’s akin to Victor Matfield with his ability to get up in the air and upset other teams. As a lock you’re not always the right build for every area of the game, but Paul took everything on. Ireland have worked hard to create depth and have done well to survive without him when he’s injured. But they’re a better team with him in it.

“Provincially we had many a duel, but I’ve got so much time for Paul and he’s a great friend. He respects what I achieved, and others, and we’ve had great times together on and off the pitch. His nickname is Keano, after Roy Keane, because he’s fiery and seriously competitive.”

Paul O'Connell and Ian McGeechan

Double act: O’Connell and Ian McGeechan in conversation on the 2009 Lions tour. Photo: Inpho

Ian McGeechan, 2009 British & Irish Lions coach
“I’d always respected Paul as a player and a person, even from one step away. He gains a natural respect amongst players from all countries and has a real presence, and that’s important for a Lions captain. He can club players together from all different backgrounds. He was a superb captain in 2009, excellent at setting the right standards. He’s not dissimilar to Martin Johnson in regards to his presence on the field with the team.

“I spent the day with Paul at his house in Ireland before the tour and we just talked rugby. He had acquired a set of books about previous Lions tours. He really wanted to understand the history of the Lions, their legacy and what it meant to play for them. We spoke a lot about the game, about players and about the type of rugby we felt like we needed to play to be competitive. It was useful, and helped me plan the first two weeks of the tour.

“What you see is what you get with Paul, he’s straightforward and honest. He can also relax, and knows when to switch on and off. He helped create that environment, which was so positive, and encouraged the players to have downtime and relax. He’s an impressive man and instrumental in taking the lead.”

Gary Gold, former South Africa forwards coach
“The Lions were always going to be a formidable challenge, but when we heard Paul was going to be captain in 2009, all of a sudden the stakes were higher. His work for Munster and Ireland is renowned, and he’s considered to be a leader in high circles as well as an outstanding player. For an Irishman to be named captain of the Lions ahead of Brian O’Driscoll was a massive call, but given the response he got from the team we knew he must be a formidable guy.

“From a lineout point of view, we were lucky that we had our own proponent of the game in Victor Matfield, but he said that Paul was the top competitor he’d faced in his 100-odd Tests, and that isn’t a flippant compliment.

“We were lucky to win the series, but it wasn’t without a massive fight, and the Lions team was obviously close-knit and well led. After the Lions lost the second Test, which must have been gut-wrenching, Paul was the first man who came upstairs to shake our hands. He was unbelievably humble in defeat – a sign of a true leader.”

Paul O'Connell and Rory Best

Pass masters: O’Connell and Rory Best in training during this year’s Six Nations. Photo: Inpho

Rory Best, current Ireland team-mate
“In Ireland camp, our physios and video analysis room are all in the same place, so everyone can see how much time Paul spends on analysis. It’s rare that he’s not in the video room looking at lineouts. You know that when he speaks, he’s not just saying things for effect. He knows what he’s talking about. It gives you an unbelievable confidence that the calls are going to be right, and he expects the same detail and knowledge from his team-mates. He trains with such intensity that he’s able to win ball under a lot of pressure.

“Paulie is an intense man on the outside, but he enjoys the craic and the jokes and the stories the boys tell. He’s a really nice fella and a gentleman.

“When Ireland used to go away to Poland for training weeks, we’d do our cryotherapy after a session and then do an activity. One day we played volleyball and some of the physios were getting involved. It was like that scene from Meet the Fockers… Paul just didn’t want to lose. He’d hammer the ball back over the net. One of the physios was actually quite good and no one else could get the ball back. Paulie started getting irate, saying, ‘Just hit it over the net!’ He had a good laugh at himself afterwards, though.

“If he didn’t stay in the game (once he retires from playing) it would be a real shame for professional rugby. For Ireland to move forward, we need guys who have led at the top to coach our decision-makers. We need fresh views and young coaches. He’d make a great coach. He’s got good attention to detail, and he’d expect a certain level. But the best coaches do, and that’s how they succeed.”

This article appeared in the Feb 2015 edition of Rugby World. For the latest subscription offers click here and to find out how to download the digital edition click here.