A Heineken Cup winning captain. A Lion. A Proud Munsterman. A Proud Irishman. A Grand Slam winner and now captain of the British and Irish Lions. Paul O’Connell is at the top of his game, and has a rugby CV to rival anyone in the game at the moment – but can he add a winning Lions tour to the list?
Height: 6′ 6′
Date of Birth: October 20th, 1979
Birthplace: Limerick, Ireland
Right up there as one of the best second rows in the world, O’Connell is one of the first names on an Ireland teamsheet such is the quality he possesses, both in a playing and leadership sense.
He scored a try on his Ireland debut against Wales in February 2002, in what was Eddie O’Sullivan’s first game in charge. O’Connell became a permanent fixture in the Irish side the following year, starting all five games at the World Cup. He has been virtually ever-present since then, taking his caps tally to 44 with six tries, including the last ever Test try at the old Lansdowne Road which he dotted down against the Pacific Islanders.
He made his breakthrough at the 2003 World Cup, impressing in all five of Ireland’s games. He played on the same Ireland Schools side as Gordon D’Arcy and played in five consecutive games for the Irish Under-21s with Donncha O’Callaghan as his second row partner – a partnership that has blossomed for Munster, Ireland and the Lions.
O’Connell though is not just a European phenomenon. He was the only European player to be nominated for the IRB World Player of the Year award in 2006, which was won by New Zealand’s Richie McCaw. He was voted the Guinness Rugby Writers’ Player of the Year in 2006, and, during the 2005/06 campaign, was also named as the IRUPA Player of the Year, the Munster Rugby Supporters Club Player of the Year and the Irish Rugby Supporters Club Player of the Year.
O’Connell stepped into the Captain’s role in 2007 to lead Ireland out for the historic first game against France in Croke Park when Brian O’Driscoll was injured. He featured in every game in the 2007 Rugby World Cup but injury limited him to only three games in the 2008 RBS 6 Nations.
It was in the 2009 Six Nations that O’Connell cemented his legend amongst the rugby fraternity. The appointment of Declan Kidney as Ireland coach led many to believe that the former Munster boss would instantly switch the Ireland captaincy from the beleaguered and off-form O’Driscoll to the talismanic O’Connell. However, despite these clamourings, Kidney stuck firm with O’Driscoll – however, the calibre of O’Connell and the respect he holds amongst the Ireland team was shown when he lifted the Triple Crown trophy at the Millennium Stadium after the Grand Slam winning game against Wales.
However, despite the stellar CV and the unquestionable leadership abilities, O’Connell has not enjoyed an entirely easy ride during his international career. Panned by critics for his lacklustre performances for the Lions in 2005, and for a series of off games during the 2007 World Cup, O’Connell has had to answer the critics with his performances. And he was back to his best in the 2009 Six Nations Grand Slam winning campaign – particularly in the decider against Wales.
O’Connell now has the opportunity to put his name among the greatest Lions of all time by leading his men to a series win in South Africa and the whole of Britain and Ireland will be behind him.