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Rugby World Cup: O'Connell was inspirational leader who you wanted to run through brick walls for

By Alan Quinlan

Published 14/10/2015

In command: Alan Quinlan, Paul O’Connell and Malcolm O’Kelly at the 2003 World Cup
In command: Alan Quinlan, Paul O’Connell and Malcolm O’Kelly at the 2003 World Cup

I am sitting in a changing room with doubt in my head. I know I'm a good player, know I have talent but we are minutes away from walking out into a packed Thomond Park and I can't get rid of this feeling of anxiety.

Is there anything that can make me feel better? This can. Paul O'Connell stands up, asks us to come together and, before you know it, we are all on our feet, gathered in a huddle. All of us. Arms around each other, knowing what's coming next.

Paul speaks. We listen. We watch. Sometimes, without them knowing it, I would look at the reactions on other players' faces as his words began to resonate. I'd see them stare straight at Paul and nod their head, puff out their cheeks. He commanded the room.

I used to love those moments, used to love the strength and energy you'd draw from Paul's words, from being locked together in a circle, from knowing the man standing beside you, and opposite you, would do anything to help you win.

The man who spoke to us cared. That is such a huge part of Paul O'Connell's greatness. He took the time to get to know you as a person. He didn't walk away from you at the dressing-room door. He stayed with you. The night I had to go to a Galway hospital with a dislocated elbow back in 2010? Paul was my first visitor.

The day I suffered from self-doubt? He was there beside you. He'd challenge you. He wouldn't be afraid to have a cut off you, either. But when he did, he'd do it in a way that somehow gave you belief.

Those speeches did so much for my career. "Have you the balls, have you the ability, have you the grit, have you the determination?" he'd ask. He'd test you. We saw a guy who was so passionate about the team.

And it made me feel different. Absolutely it did. It made me want to run through a brick wall. After Paul's speech, there was no anxiety. No doubt.

What was special about those speeches? What's special is how he delivered them, the way he spoke, the passion in the eyes, the tone in his voice, the way he controlled the volume of his delivery. Sometimes he'd be quiet, sometimes louder. Always genuine, always determined, and always able to deliver something a lot more basic than that.

He dealt in reality. He laid it on the line to people. Nothing was overcomplicated. Nothing he said, he wouldn't do himself. Nothing he said felt unattainable. He made you feel you could beat anybody.

Can a team-speech change the way a person feels? A Paul O'Connell team speech can. Anxiety turned to belief in seconds. That power he had over people's emotions was unbelievable. You'd go out onto a pitch and want to do it for him as well as yourself.

Was this what brought me to a Cardiff hospital on Sunday night? You'd have to say it was. I remembered my own bad injuries in 2010, 2005 and 2003 and remembered the friendship and support he gave me.

I thought about that on Sunday when I saw Paul go down. The game was going on. I was doing commentary work.

Paul O'Connell doesn't fake pain. Once he's hurt, it has to be serious to keep him on the ground. There and then I knew his World Cup was over.

And it brought me back to Adelaide in 2003. I remember the indescribable pain. I remember lying in the dressing room while the game was going on outside. I felt awful.

On Sunday there was one thing that had to be said. 'Have no regrets, Paul'. I told him to be proud, not just for the career he has had but for the last four months, the way he has given everything of himself to be the best he can be.

Earlier in his career, he was too hard on himself. Because of his determination to succeed, he would get frustrated. As he got older, he got a better balance. Yet the intensity was still there. He was always a natural rugby player, a talent, but that was never enough for him.

He worked on his speed, on his skills, on his strength.

People said he was too old and yet he proved them wrong. He ended up winning man of the match awards in his last Six Nations campaign. That's Paul O'Connell for you. He's intense. He's driven. But ultimately, he's selfless. A brilliant player, friend, person.

Belfast Telegraph

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