O'Connell Inherits the Earth
The Indo had a daft little story on Tuesday headlined “Keano’s Role in Munster’s Cup Bid”, which documented a visit the then Manchester United skipper had made to the province’s camp prior to their opening Heineken Cup match, a defeat at Sale Sharks. Roy had popped in on his fellow Munstermen to wish them well for the season, and his oval ball counterparts quizzed him on this and that, as you would.
To suggest that Keane descended like the spirit of some pagan war-god and blessed the Munster camp for the battles to come might be a tad overstating the matter, but the piece did make the valid point about how Keane’s famously driven approach finds its parallels in Munster’s attitude to the 15-man game and particularly the fact that “O'Connell, such a talismanic figure, has been….readily transposed as the team's nearest equivalent to the Mayfield maestro.”
To expand further than that, as Munster prepare for Saturday’s advance on Cardiff for the Heineken Cup final against Biarritz, it has become clear over the course of this season that, with Keane’s career in its twilight, O’Connell has inherited his mantle as the outstanding incarnation of athletic excellence to come from these shores.
The subject of individual inspiration in team games has come up several times this week, since last Saturday’s ‘Gerrard Final’, also in Cardiff. But, as magnificient a player as O’Connell, like Keane before him, is, both of them contribute as much with their leadership and their understanding of how to get their team playing as with their individual gifts.
O’Connell, at only 26, has already a plethora of heroic performances under his belt; too many to mention, in fact, suffice to say that most of Ireland and Munster’s finest hours in recent years have featured the flame-haired Limerick behemoth at his best. For instance, take this Daily Telegraph write-up following Ireland’s defeat of England at Twickenham in 2004:
It was a moment drenched in symbolism. It was the 79th minute and Lawrence Dallaglio was in possession, cheeks blowing with familiar commitment. Then along came a monster called Paul O'Connell with a ferocious tackle….That hit was O'Connell's last contribution in a monumental performance on a historic afternoon.
The Munster lock epitomised the astonishing Irish pack effort and O'Connell, just 24, can lay claim to being the outstanding forward in world rugby. England missed Martin Johnson more than they will ever admit. What Sir Clive Woodward did not realise was Ireland had poached his former captain and put him in a green jersey. A long way to go before the legend status is granted, but there is so much of Johnno in O'Connell. Edge, a huge physical presence and streetwise beyond his years.
O'Connell's line-out steals set the tone of the match; his athletic re-start takes testament to his agility. The Munster forward was powerful in the loose and raw-boned aggression in defence. The greatest Irish lock of them all, Willie-John McBride, would have been puffing on his pipe last night and purring with pleasure.
Martin Johnson, Willie-John and O’Connell. Good company indeed. Fast forward to a few weeks ago and that merciless destruction of Leinster. Munster deciding to put a kickable penalty into the corner, O’Connell soaring in the line-out, winning the ball that led to Leamy’s opening try. Before Leinster knew what had hit them, they had been grasped by the neck by the Big Red Monster (O’Connell or Munster, the epithet fits both), put up against the wall with their little legs dangling and firmly told: “Back off!”
Unlike Roy Keane - whose career bears the hallmarks of Shakespearean tragedy: the vaulting ambition which led to him being denied at the moment of his greatest success by the very character traits which made him great – the only destruction which O’Connell wreaks is on the opposition, not himself.
Where Keane missed out on the European Cup final that would have been his definitive glory, O’Connell is now poised on the brink of his greatest achievement. This shuddering combination of awesome physicality, towering leadership and game-shaping nous will be the driving force behind everything this Munster side will do to procure their most coveted quarry; and O'Connell has the look of a man who won't be denied this time.