Paul O’Connell doesn’t mean to belittle the occasion of his 100th cap for Ireland on Saturday.
The milestone and the history humble the captain, and fill him with pride.
It’s an honor, he adds, to be joining “a nice little group of Irish guys” who have reached the mark, all of whom he’s played beside: Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes.
It’s just this 100th test feels no different, to him, than his 33rd, 64th, or 88th, say.
No matter what happens in Cardiff, where Ireland is trying to keep a Six Nations Grand Slam alive, while Wales is trying to keep its title hopes alive, it won’t feel as special to O’Connell as his first match. Simply because he didn’t know what to expect. He was in uncharted territory.
It was the 2002 Six Nations, and he was picked to debut against Wales. This was six months after he’d broken into the Munster side. He was 22, had a full head of red hair, though it was under a helmet at Lansdowne Road. His nerves were calmed somewhat by being in the company of six Munster teammates in the pack alone, including captain Mick Galwey.
Then the details become fuzzy.
It was all going so well, Ireland was already two tries up, when in the 14th minute he went too high in a tackle against Wales lock Craig Quinnell, took an elbow to the head, and was knocked unconscious. He played for another 20 or so minutes, during which he scored a try from a rolling maul. He pumped his fist and grinned.
When his mind came out of a fog, there were a few minutes left in the first half. Confused, he walked off the field to the team doctor. He passed the usual questions: What day is it? How many fingers am I holding up? But when the doctor told him he’d scored a try, O’Connell didn’t believe him.
“I looked up at the clock, which said two minutes and 30 seconds. I told the doctor, I can’t believe I’m coming off after only two minutes of my first match. But he told me the clock was counting down. I don’t even remember scoring.”
That 2001-02 season, O’Connell’s first in big-time rugby, went a long way to establishing his credentials as one of the best locks ever to grace the game.
Before that season’s Heineken Cup semifinals, O’Connell had to undertake a fitness test on an injured shoulder, so Munster coach Declan Kidney held the training bag. O’Connell hit it so hard that one of Kidney’s teeth was knocked out.
The cup final was even more painful. Leicester, armed with Martin Johnson, Ben Kay and Martin Corry, stole eight lineouts from Munster and won 15-9. O’Connell has been analysing opposition, notably their lineouts, ever since.
When Ireland was preparing to play the Springboks in late 2009, he asked team forwards coach Gert Smal, a South African, to teach him some Afrikaans, so O’Connell might decipher their lineout calls. He stole one throw-in, and Ireland won.
“Rugby training or weight training, or fitness or meetings, or video analysis, it’s never been a chore for me,” he says.
“That happens to some guys towards the end of their careers, maybe it becomes a chore for them. It’s never been a chore for me. I still enjoy it, now more than ever – and that’s probably one of the reasons that I’m still playing.”
O’Connell showed his dedication to improve when he was a swimmer as a kid, when he’d even train on Saturdays and Sundays. He didn’t start playing rugby until he was 16.
The year after his Ireland debut, he was a starter at his first Rugby World Cup. The year after that, 2004, he captained Ireland for the first time, the loyal stand-in for O’Driscoll.
He’s been at the forefront of Ireland’s renaissance in the 2000s. O’Driscoll was the rapier out back, O’Gara then Jonathan Sexton the points machines, and O’Connell the hammer up front. Ireland racked up Triple Crowns, and finally the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2009 after 60 years.
He would also captain Munster and the British and Irish Lions, and more success followed.
“I’m very competitive, that would be my biggest strength,” he says.
“I certainly can’t run over people or unlock defenses with my footwork, or whatever, but I’m certainly very competitive.
“I enjoy being part of a team, and helping drive teams on, trying to make them successful, and trying to get the best out of people. I’ve always enjoyed a leadership role whether I’ve been captain or not.”
He’s also renowned for getting his point across.
“When he speaks to the squad … the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Sexton says. “I don’t know if he knows how important he is, and (how important) his words are.”
O’Gara: “He’s very special in terms of the ability to deliver the right message at the right time. At times … you can see steam coming out of his big red head.”
Reserve hooker Sean Cronin: “His talks scare me. You see him doing it, his intensity, physicality, attention to detail. So when you see him doing that, you’re saying to yourself, ‘I need to get to that as well.'”
The Rugby World Cup this year will be O’Connell’s fourth and last, and he leads a team that has its best chance yet of passing the quarterfinals for the frist time, and doing some real damage. Beyond that, he’s expected to retire next year when his contract ends. And only because his body is betraying his razor mind.
Coaching interests him. His standing was acknowledged by the Lions in 2013 when, after he broke his arm, he was retained in the tour party as a coach.
The clock is counting down, but O’Connell is far from finished.