To rugby union fans, the name Paul O’Connell is synonymous with the northern hemisphere game; he is one of the modern greats of the game, but has an incredibly humble background story.
He won over 100 caps for Ireland, won a Grand Slam in the Six Nations, been on three British and Irish Lions tours, and played in numerous World Cups, not to forget Heineken Cup wins as well.
Had it not been for Brian O’Driscoll’s brilliant career at the same time as his, he would have arguably been the best Irish player of his generation.
He was a die-hard second row forward, putting his heart into every tackle and getting stuck in at most of the breakdowns. He finally retired at the age of 35 in 2015, after an illustrious 14-year career with Munster, his home province.
Having played rugby for 10 years myself, I was keen to learn about his experiences playing the game at the top level, and this frank and honest memoir explains just how brutal rugby can be – not only physically, but mentally as well.
Calling it quits
O’Connell was a player who strived for excellence throughout his career, be it playing for Munster, Ireland or the Lions. He wanted to be the best, and he wanted to be in peak physical condition whenever he played.
“O’Connell is an honest man, and he knew he had run out of steam, which is fair enough for a player who had given his life to the sport for the best part of 20 years”
He recalls how, after years of doing it, he took the big decision to quit whilst swimming, a passage which resonated with me about my own childhood experience of playing sport.
He recounts having to tell his father of his choice, and how hard it was to get the words out, because, having put so much effort in to help him, he was worried his dad wouldn’t be happy with his decision. His reply? “It’s your decision and I’ll back it” – a similar reaction to the one I encountered.
Towards the end of my rugby career at youth level, I was finding the sheer physicality was taking its toll on me mentally, and even though we are completely different people, O’Connell was in a similar state of mind towards the end of his career.
O’Connell talks about getting injured in Ireland’s final game of the 2015 World Cup, saying: “It came into my head that I’d be stronger in the second half. And then, on 39.42, I got pulled out of the ring.”
This resonated with me after looking back at my career, playing one of the best games of my life, only to break my collarbone in a tackle.
The mental battle during the months of recuperation ahead is the toughest part of injuries – a key topic O’Connell which dwells on throughout the book.
He recalls how as entered the final phase of his career, the aftermath of matches began taking an increasingly tough toll. “When I got into my thirties, the same aches and pains were telling me it was time to retire.”
O’Connell is an honest man, and he knew he had run out of steam, which is fair enough for a player who had given his life to the sport for the best part of 20 years.
Nor was was it just on the field of play where the stresses and strains of an increasingly professionalised sport manifested themselves.
“He was a brutal player too, and reminisces about the dark side of rugby”
O’Connell recalls one training session where “we collapsed the maul and the digs were flying… I rained five or six punches down on the back of Quinny’s head… In the dressing room afterwards, he was laughing about it. He couldn’t believe I’d belted him.”
Contrast that with another episode in 2007 when, during Ireland training, he got into a scuffle with Ulster player Ryan Caldwell. O’Connell punched him, fracturing his jaw and knocking him out, and was terrified he was swallowing and choking on blood.
This was a turning point for O’Connell. “What happened to Ryan Caldwell changed me,” he reveals. “It was the worst moment of my career. I never threw a punch in training again.”
I got great enjoyment out of reading this book simply due to the fact that I could relate to a lot of the issues that O’Connell discusses.
Of course, he’s a legend in his sport and captained his country, but having skippered my youth team for the last five years of my playing career, I could buy into where he was coming from.
O’Connell wasn’t your everyday modern rugby player. He flitted between sports, trying to find his niche throughout his teenage years, and didn’t begin to excel at rugby union until he was 16 years old.
He was a brutal player too, and reminisces about the dark side of rugby. “The first thing you do after kick-off, find your opposing player, and give him a shoeing without getting caught.”
As bad as it sounds that was kind of the enjoyment of rugby – there were never any hard feelings after the game, a shake of the hands and you just crack on with it. This is something that O’Connell emphasises throughout his story.
The mental battle O’Connell went through was the most interesting topic of all, though. He’d beat himself up if a performance wasn’t up to standard, and even went through stages of depression when he knew he wasn’t good enough.
O’Connell was always in a battle with his mind about his fitness, for the last 10 years of his career, he doubted whether he was good enough.
He was so passionate about the sport he didn’t want to let himself or his team-mates down.
He was a player who took this kind of thing to heart. Perhaps it was the thing that spurred him on to achieve greatness.
This is something that many people can relate to, whether they play sport or not, I know I took some comfort in knowing that I can relate to someone who was as good at rugby as O’Connell was.
What I enjoyed the most is the connection you can have when reading an autobiography; you look for the similarities and whether you have been in similar situations. In this case there were many similarities and that’s what made it such a good memoir for me.
The Battle by Paul O’Connell is published by Penguin Ireland.