“The story is, you nearly killed him’.”
Paul O’Connell’s ‘The Battle’, co-authored by Alan English, is a superb read. It gives a fascinating insight into the mindset of one of Ireland’s greatest ever players and the steely determination of overcoming severe injury setbacks.
One passage from the book is particularly striking and it’s during the time as O’Connell and the rest of the Ireland squad were preparing for the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
Paul O’Connell on the worst moment of his career.
With the squad training at the University of Limerick, O’Connell reacted to Ulster’s Ryan Caldwell tackling him in a non-contact session by punching him. Unfortunately, the punch landed flush and Caldwell immediately required medical attention and was subsequently hospitalised.
O’Connell describes the incident in vivid detail and he admits that it was the “worst moment” of his career.
“In training, I continued getting into scraps, until the day in 2007 when I realised that a lot of us had become so powerful through lifting weights that a single punch could hurt someone badly.
“It happened at an Ireland camp before the World Cup, when Eddie (O’Sullivan) was close to naming his squad for France. We were training at the University of Limerick and Ryan Caldwell, the Ulster second-row, was trying to make an impression.
“He’d been spoiling rucks all week, making a nuisance of himself. That was all fair enough – he was like me at the same age – but when he put me on the floor with a tackle in a non-contact session my went and I got up and threw a punch.
“I didn’t think I hit him too hard, but my right hand struck the side of his face and he went down, unconscious. What I didn’t know then was that one of his teeth had burst his cheek and he was swallowing a lot of blood.
“The rest of us had to move away when the team doctor, Gary O’Driscoll, rushed over to him.
“I kept looking over, from a distance, and the situation just kept getting worse and worse. Gary was trying to resuscitate him and he had blood all over his mouth. He was roaring for an ambulance. Then he started cutting the jersey off Ryan.
“I was shaking by the time the ambulance came to take him away. I was starting to fear the worst, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking that.
“The ambulance drove off and Eddie came across the pitch towards us.
“‘What’s the story?’, I asked him.
“The story is, you nearly killed him’.”
O’Connell then goes on to describe his “devastation” at what happened but he also outlines how much it meant to him that Caldwell’s Ulster teammates recognised that the incident was an accident.
“By then, the medics had stabilized the situation and Eddie told me he was going to be ok, but I was absolutely devastated that I’d put a fellow player in hospital with a punch, someone who was only trying to put down a marker in a training session.
“The first guy to console me was Neil Best, one of Ryan’s teammates at Ulster and a good friend of his. He said: ‘You didn’t mean for that to happen.’
“It was very decent of him, and I remember John Hayes being supportive too when the horror of the situation was at its worst, but back in my room at the Castletroy Park Hotel I was disgusted with myself, embarrassed and in tears when I called Dad. Eddie came to the room, and talking about it helped. Other guys rang me and I felt bad that they had to make the calls, but I appreciated them too.
“A few hours later I went to the hospital, and Ryan was unbelievably sound. He said: ‘Don’t worry about it – it was just bad luck, there’s no problem.’ They kept him in overnight as a precaution, but he was fine.
“The following day, I apologized to the squad. I told them we had great team morale but I had completely undermined it. Paddy Wallace, another Ulster player, was sitting in front of me. I could see him nodding his head as I was talking and it mattered so much to me that one of Ryan’s friends was accepting my apology.
“What happened to Ryan Caldwell changed me. It was the worst moment of my career. I never threw a punch in training again.”
Originally published on March 27, 2020.