By Marisa Kennedy
Legend, giant, hero, gentleman. Just some of the words that have been used to describe Paul O’Connell since he announced his retirement from rugby earlier this month.
The 36 year-old issued a statement through the IRFU saying that the decision came following the advice from his doctors.
“I have been blessed to be a professional rugby player for over 14 years and to be part of Munster and Ireland teams that have experienced success. I have played with some of the best players to ever line out in the red of Munster and the green of Ireland and have had the privilege of captaining my country.”
“I would like to thank those at Young Munster RFC, Munster Rugby, the IRFU and Lions Rugby who have supported me over the course of my playing career,” the statement read.
The former Ireland captain sustained a nasty hamstring injury during Ireland’s heroic defeat of France in the World Cup last October, from which he has not recovered.
O’Connell had moved to France following his operation, intending to finish his career with a stint at Toulon.
The legendary second row played 108 games for his country over a period of 13 years. He scored a try on his international debut back in 2002 against Wales in the Six Nations Championship.
A very proud Limerick man, it was almost fitting that he finished his career at Munster where he will forever be a hero.
O’Connell made his debut for the province back in 2001 in a Celtic League clash with Edinburgh. He played a key role in the team’s Heineken Cup success in 2006 and was named captain of Munster in 2007, taking over the reigns from current Munster Head Coach, Anthony Foley. That season, he led Munster to their second Heineken Cup title.
While 2009 was the year he was named captain of the British and Irish Lions, having previously travelled with them in 2005, in the minds of Irish fans, that was the year that Paul O’Connell played an integral role for Ireland as they won the Six Nations Grand Slam for the first time in 61 years.
Joe Schmidt appointed O’Connell as the Irish captain in 2014 following the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll. During his tenure, he led by example as Ireland won the Six Nations Championship in 2014 and retained it the following year, winning Player of the Year for his heroic efforts during that Championship.
It was announced in June 2015 that O’Connell would be leaving Munster and would retire from international rugby after the World Cup. Later that month he decided to join Toulon.
Munster supporters gave their talismanic leader a fitting send off from Thomond Park following their Pro12 semi-final win over Ospreys, staying in the stadium long after the game to applaud the man who had given his all to the team.
To those in UL, he is now known as Dr Paul O’Connell after he was conferred with an Honorary Doctor of Science during a ceremony in the Concert Hall last November, something he described as, “very special”.
“To get appreciated by your home university is something very special,” he said. “When you grow up in Limerick close to the city, UL ends up being a big part of your life.”
While most rugby supporters will remember O’Connell for his fierce and intimidating presence on the field, to those who encountered him off the field, he was far from the character that delivered the legendary “Fear of God” speech, with many describing him as, “down to earth”, “a gentleman” and “the definition of humility”.
Tributes started pouring in from teammates and opponents as soon as the announcement was made with #ThanksPaulie trending on Twitter for hours.
“Really disappointing to see Paul O’Connell having to retire. Sensational career in Red & Green. Simply irreplaceable,” wrote Brian O’Driscoll on Twitter.
Wales international, Gethin Jenkins wrote: “Sad to see Paul O’Connell retire, but what a legend on and off the field. Pleasure to share the same field with and against him.”
His long term friend and colleague, Ronan O’Gara tweeted: “Something beautiful and fitting the great man retires as a one club man .The pride of Limerick and a role model for the rest of the country.”
He was always, and will remain to be, a firm fan favourite, whether Munster, Ireland or rugby in general.
An enormous banner was placed over Brown Thomas on O’Connell Street in Limerick following his announcement that simply read: “Limerick Born&Red #ThanksPaulie”.
A fitting tribute.