14 Years On From Paul O'Connell's Try-Scoring International Debut
Paul O'Connell clocked up 108 caps and some significant silverware for Ireland. 14 years ago, he began that journey with a debut try scored in the haze of concussion.
At approximately ten to three on Sunday, 14 Ireland players will be stood stony-faced in the underbelly of the Aviva Stadium behind new captain Rory Best, preparing to enter a cauldron of green and kick off their Six Nations campaign against Wales. Best has excelled in the No. 2 shirt during the last decade and is an expert scrummager, but his predecessor will be a notable absentee from that tunnel.
A vital cog in three victorious Six Nations campaigns, including a Grand Slam, Paul O'Connell clocked up 108 caps and some significant silverware for Ireland, and was also part of a winning Lions tour in Australia. After enjoying such a prestigious time representing the Emerald Isle, the lock finally hung up his green jersey after last year's World Cup.
But let's go back to the first of those caps. It's Ireland against Wales on Sunday 3 February 2002 – a time when Enrique Iglesias had just notched up a third consecutive week at the top of the charts with Hero – and still a year before fellow international retiree Dan Carter had even kicked a ball with that trusty left peg for the All Blacks. O'Connell was given the nod by Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan having made his mark at Munster, and the 22-year-old had a fiery, determined look in his eyes as he took to the field at Lansdowne Road.
With his team leading 13-0 in the 25th minute, O'Connell was levered high into the air to pat down a line-out into the grateful arms of the driving maul, which gulped up the remaining space to the try line before touching the ball down. Emerging from the flurry of green and red shirts with the ball in his left hand was debutant O'Connell. With a woozy grin spread wide across his face, he strongly resembled a man who had just endured a heavy session at The Dog & Duck.
In actual fact he was concussed due to an earlier blow taken from the elbow of his opposite number in the Wales camp, Craig Quinnell. Nevertheless, he continued to play until the latter stages of the first half, when he wandered off the pitch having regained consciousness. The team doctor was on hand to inform the colossal lock about the debut try that he had no recollection of, as well as the more disappointing news that he would need to come off immediately. The home side continued their domination and, at the final whistle, Wales had been well and truly tonked in a 54-10 rout.
The feeling of nostalgia is palpable when watching that match again – particularly concerning the kits. Even as a young man O'Connell was built like a wardrobe, but his shirt hung loosely because it was a genuine rugby jersey. These traditional kits had all but disappeared from the professional game by the mid-2000s, replaced by lycra that is akin to bodypaint and not forgiving on the builds of certain forwards. You can understand the pragmatic necessity of these shirts to avoid tugging, but wouldn't it be refreshing to see elite players sporting Cotton Traders jerseys once again?
One positive change in professional rugby is the closer attention paid to head injuries and concussion during matches, particularly after the pertinent examples of George North and Mike Brown receiving hefty knocks to the cranium. The current situation is illustrated perfectly by a recent interview with former Ireland hooker Keith Wood. Discussing O'Connell's international retirement, he said, "It was funny, when [O'Connell] arrived on the scene in 2002, he can't remember the game, which... [lingering pause] isn't funny anymore."
It is quite possible that Wood saw a potential shitstorm flying in his direction and decided to clarify a perfectly innocent comment because of the sensitivity that is attached to head injuries nowadays. What was seen as an amusing anecdote in that era is now an important discussion point in the game.
Clearly caution has to be applied, and at least now there is a protocol in place for a team doctor and an independent expert to analyse whether a player who has received a blow to the head can continue. In years to come, there is a possibility of equipment being installed pitchside to immediately assess the players' condition, and eliminate any possibility of doubt from the doctors. A heavily standardised procedure should have a better chance of ensuring the players' safety.
Fortunately, O'Connell did not sustain any long-term injury, and embarked on a remarkable career in which he prospered on the club and international stage. During a 14-year spell at Thomond Park, the Limerick lad won several European and domestic gongs, and became captain in 2007.
The same honour was handed to him for the Lions tour of South Africa in 2009. That trip was far from fruitful as the Lions narrowly lost the first two games, but O'Connell's drive and courage to avoid a whitewash was clear from his team talk in the Ellis Park dressing room. Towering over the players huddled around him, it would be hard not to be inspired by the battle cry of the lock, punctuated by swearing ringing through your ears, "It's a test fucking jersey. It's a fucking great honour... So let's fucking put on the performance we deserve – put on the win we fucking deserve!" His side comfortably beat the Springboks.
It is a mark of a great leader that you come to the fore when suffering from adversity as O'Connell did on that occasion. He was an infectious character who galvanised those that looked up to him (literally and metaphorically). It was not until late 2013 that he had the job of skippering Ireland on a permanent basis, despite deputising more than ably for Brian O'Driscoll beforehand. With the last two Six Nations trophies secured, O'Connell announced that he would retire after the World Cup last year, and move from hometown club Munster to become a Toulon galáctico.
Sadly, his tournament was cut short after a hamstring injury forced him up into the stands, and with that his international career came to a melancholic close. Yet clearly that is not the moment that will define his time in green: Ireland fans, and the whole of the rugby world, will remember him for the manner in which he battered through opposition defences, and marshalled his teammates by example from that moment in 2002 until late last year.
O'Connell's shadow will loom large in that tunnel on Sunday, but Best could not have had a better mentor to learn from. Good luck Rory – time to step up to the plate.