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Big man Paul O'Connell is by far the greatest leader of them all

By Tony Ward

If you are looking for the definition of the word 'great' in Irish sport, then start with the name Paul Jeremiah O'Connell.

I am not close enough to this iconic figure to address him as Paulie. I am not in his inner sanctum of close friends. Yet bump into him, as I do from time to time, and he makes you feel that you are that good a friend.

Pleasantries exchanged, the big man will be first to enquire about what's going on in your life. It is no charade, just a natural niceness.

O'Connell is a hard man on the rugby field and in the dressing room but take him away from that competitive sphere and he is as soft as putty.

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What Paul the player brought to the table was total commitment. Even when he had a bad one, he left nothing behind.

His athleticism out of touch was his trademark but so too his work-rate.

As a captain he was the go-to player for Munster, for Ireland and for the Lions. But it wasn't just the physical aspect.

Indeed, he wasn't a wrecking ball of a ball carrier like Stephen Ferris, but what he lacked in dynamism in contact he more than compensated through availability.

And when it came to moral courage he was without peer.

He was the antithesis of the sunshine player. When dark clouds were hovering and opposition momentum gathering, O'Connell the leader was always the man attempting to turn the tide the other way.

It is that quality that wins the dressing room over, because he does what he demands that others do.

It is the trademark of a great captain; Irish rugby has been blessed with a few but this one was the greatest of them all.

The last time I was speaking to him one to one, naturally the conversation got around to Toulon and the new challenge ahead. He was excited but apprehensive. Why the apprehension? Because in his own words "save for a Lions tour I have never been out of Limerick for any significant length of time".

He loves his home town dearly and the Treaty City loves him.

I doubt any other player could have finished his playing time for the provincial side and left with such good will given he was going to join one of Munster's likely opponents.

Maybe this is a selfish comment but in a sense I am glad he will see out his playing time as a one-club player in the town he loves.

I confess to a strange feeling when seeing him in a Toulon photo shoot despite being still laid up at the time.

He is up there with Mick Mackey and Terry Wogan as the greatest Limerick icon ever, and certainly now the greatest living Limerick man by a country mile.

Thank you for all the fantastic memories.

The leader of leaders and greatest of the great.

Belfast Telegraph


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