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Six Nations Rugby: Ireland captain Paul O'Connell's inspiration

By David Kelly

When Paul O'Connell read Matthew Syed's "Bounce", a rather pointy-headed treatise on whether talent is simply nurtured or genetic, he didn't take long to deliver his own answer.

"I would think it's nurtured," he told me recently. "If you believe it's only down to talent, a load of people may as well throw their hat at it. You have to work."

O'Connell has lived that credo all his life, from the early morning pool sessions of his childhood to the hours on the golf course as a teen and then, ultimately, a most decorated career in rugby.

If he had not have been a Lions captain, a two-time Heineken Cup winner and a Grand Slam winner, O'Connell's phenomenal work ethic could just as easily transferred itself to any sporting theatre.

On Monday mornings as a young boy, he would wake his father, Michael, a few minutes before 6am to begin a week of chloroform-soaked dreams of Olympic glory; he genuinely believed he could emulate the great Mark Spitz.

"That training has applied to me down the line more than anything else. The work ethic comes easy because I was used to it from a young age," he says.

He couldn't reach perfection in the pool; when he took up golf, Bob Rotella wasn't available to tell him that this wasn't a game of perfect, either. "I miss being good at it," he said.

Instead, he became phenomenally successful in the oval game; the dedicated work ethic required and the social camaraderie seemed even more perfectly suited to his disposition.

O'Connell was at once perfectly adaptable to the extraordinary physical demands of the modern, professional game but also keen to cling on to the sepia-tinted genesis of the sport in its amateur days.

He straddled both eras, beginning his career alongside such legendary characters as Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey; now he fuses his talents alongside young, driven players like Robbie Henshaw who know nothing else but professionalism.

As much as he wallows in the vast array of coaching and scientific aids available to the modern player, there is a part of him that has always pined for innocent times.

"I would have loved to have played with Willie John McBride," he has said. It is difficult to argue who was the better player - impossible, in fact, given the disparity in eras.

But they are cut from the same cloth. Willie John would dearly have loved to played with O'Connell too.

The 2001 Celtic League final with Munster propelled him into the Irish sporting conscience; Paul Wallace, then a Leinster player, recalls getting a dig in the ribs that he presumed hailed from a Clohessy or a Galwey.

Instead, it was this "skinny little ginger-haired fella" as Shane Byrne described him.

All his legendary opponents would note his performance down with a grudging mark of respect; soon he would stand alongside them on debut for Ireland, ironically against Wales, where he would score a try before being concussed.

"You could see his understanding of everything that we were doing was so fast and he was a perfectionist," adds Byrne. "He really wanted to take everything from where it was and push on through and be part of it becoming just better.

"Everyone in the changing room feeds off it. That's what happens when he has that captain's armband on.

"Because he's a leader, he has to do it as well. He shows you, 'this is exactly what I was talking about. Go out and do this because I'm bloody doing it.'

"That's what the guy does and we've been so lucky to have him."

This leadership of men has constantly defined his career, always predicated upon a desire to echo the glories of leaders from the game's past, from McBride through to Fitzgerald, Galwey and O'Driscoll.

Injury has thieved him of much time; a serious back injury and an infection to a pubic bone threatened to prematurely end his career.

He has hinted that he may walk away after this year's World Cup.

Helping Ireland end that long-standing hoodoo would certainly serve up a fitting legacy.

Belfast Telegraph

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