One of Ireland’s greatest sporting heroes experienced a mixed bag of tricks over the past two weeks.
The living legend that is Paul O’Connell put in a herculean performance as Munster over came all the odds to defeat Harlequins in their own backyard in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup. Just back from a prolonged period of rehabilitation as a result of back surgery, the man-giant captained his team in every sense of the word.
He called on all his years of experience and his undying passion for the game to put in a performance that somehow combined the know-how of winning with the exuberance of youth that O’Connell keeps deep in a well inside him.
The cold stats will show that O’Connell didn’t make as many tackles as he appeared too, or carry the ball for as many yards as your eyes would have had you believe, or steal as many line-outs as you previously thought. It was just that he was involved in pretty much every big play that happened, and was on the periphery of all the others, seeking out the ball, or driving his team mates on both literally and metaphorically.
The image of him at the final whistle, standing with his fist and his Desperate Dan jaw clenched in a victory howl, should have brought a smile to any aging sportsman or woman. The man is a colossus in stature and deed. Paul Jeremiah O’Connell is only 33 year-old but in the modern game of rugby that should be multiplied much like dog years are, such is the abuse they put their bodies through. Jeremiah was known as the ‘Weeping Prophet’ in biblical times, and Munster fans shed a few tears on the back of this prophet down through the years.
Fast forward one week and O’Connell was in the spotlight for the wrong reasons: a wild swing of the boot that connected with the head of Dave Kearney as the Leinster man tried to retain possession of the ball on the ground during their Rabodirect league clash. Kearney was knocked unconscious. In slow-motion the incident looked ugly and avoidable if not intentional. But game situations don’t happen in slow mo.
O’Connell saw the ball and went for it. Could he have pulled out? Yes. But I have yet to see O’Connell pull out of anything on a rugby field. In the end O’Connell was not cited as the kick was deemed ‘careless’ rather than intentional. The inspirational second row deserved that call to go his way because his record of sportsmanship is exemplary. It’s a lesson for all players out there: be consistent in your sporting behaviour because the time will come when you will need your good name to stand alone if doubt is ever cast on you in an ambiguous situation.
Paul Galvin is the perfect example. There is no doubt the Kerryman was often wronged by decisions that went against him. On many occasions he was not the aggressor but suffered the same fate punishment as the instigator. The reason why is simple: on too many other occasions he had been the aggressor and had lost his cool and had veered onto the wrong side of the playing rules. He was a watched man. His reputation preceded him.
O’Connell made no public statement on his incident with Kearney, but the public and eventually the powers that be gave him the benefit of the doubt. I think he deserved it.
I’m still reeling from the shocking news of the cowardly and revolting attack on the Boston marathon. In 2001, I stood a few hundred meters from where the bombs exploded on Monday, cheering home the participants. I spent 18 wonderful months in America’s most Irish of cities and revelled in the warmth of the reception I was afforded. Immediately on Monday night I went about contacting my closest friends that still call that city home: Brian and Tara Keane, and Paul and Gio McGovern, from Drumshanbo, amongst them. Thankfully all are well.
Other Leitrim connections in Beantown include Jimmy and Mai Gallagher, who treated me like one of their own during my time living by the Charles River. I worked with their son Jimmy in the Irish Voice newspaper during my time there and each Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter the Gallaghers rounded up all the stray and homesick Leitrimites for a feast fit for a king and some great sporting and political debate around their most hospitable of kitchen tables.
Boston is a sports mad city and home to the world’s oldest annual marathon (it started in 1897), held each year on Patriots Day, April 15. Many Irish travel to compete in an event that brings the entire city out in support. Unfortunately, it will now become a day of mourning for many families ripped apart by the senseless loss and of loves one. Many hundreds more remain maimed, their bodies brutally shattered. My thoughts are with them all.