The news that many Irish rugby fans have been dreading for the better part of this decade has finally been delivered – Ireland captain Paul O’Connell has announced his retirement from rugby effective immediately.
O’Connell’s retirement will close the curtain on what has been a tremendous professional rugby career for both Munster and Ireland as the 101 test veteran prepares for life without rugby after failing to recover from a hamstring injury that ended his Rugby World Cup campaign last October .
Ireland were widely considered as dark horses for September’s World Cup in England with Joe Schmidt’s side viewed as the number one threat to derailing any southern hemisphere title aspirations. Ireland’s campaign went down in flames in large thanks to the absence of several key players including O’Connell. Schmidt’s side entered the World Cup in fantastic form winning 12 of their last 14 games prior to their Pool D opener against Canada, with Ireland’s only losses coming in nail biters against the All Blacks in 2013 and to Wales in last year’s year’s Six Nations.
In both of those losses O’Connell could not have possibly done anything more to help his side secure victory, as he led the charge in both games, tireless in the carry and resolute in defence. In sport we commonly throw around the term ‘we learn more about players in defeat than in victory’ and I think this is true of O’Connell, a genuine leader who fights to the bitter end and takes the game by the scruff of the neck in order to chase down a lead.
He is not the first to display those characteristics but I can’t think of many more that have embodied that spirit to the level that O’Connell has over the last decade.
However, spirit and battle hardened nature aside, O’Connell’s legacy will not always be about leadership or team accomplishments, there have been plenty of players who have achieved both and yet aren’t held in the same esteem as some of the game’s greats.
But when all is said and done and the tributes have been paid and the dust begins to settle on what has been an utterly tremendous career, where will O’Connell rank among the pantheon of the greatest second rowers to ever lace them up?
For me it’s at the very top and that’s not said lightly.
When you look at who the Limerick native is competing against for the tag of the greatest second rower ever, he has stiff competition from his own country, nevermind the rest of the world, but regardless the list is pretty stacked.
John Eales, Martin Johnson, Willie McBride, Colin Meads, Victor Matfield, Brad Thorn, Bakkies Botha, Fabien Pelous and Frik du Preez, the list goes on and on and on. All great players, all worthy of their place in their respective country’s rugby folklore, but when compared against each other it’s hard to say.
You see rugby, unlike most sports, has seen vast changes since the sport’s inception, with the modern game a far cry from what it was when it was first played. As with every professional sport, rugby has evolved and changed but from a lock’s perspective it is almost a completely different game with this position in particular maybe evolving the most of any position in the sport.
The fact is the lineout, maul and scrum have developed into what can now be seen as an art-form with the professional lineout in particular often a complex beast that can be difficult to wrap your head around. You went from the days when locks would merely slap at the ball, where leaping ability and height ruled the roost, to a point now where winning your own lineout ball and stealing the opposition’s can sometimes make or break a win or loss, especially in the ultra-competitive world of international rugby.
Is O’Connell better than Matfield? Was Eales better than Johnson? It’s all very subjective and you can make legitimate cases for both sides but I think it can be quite difficult to compare O’Connell to McBride or Matfield to Du Preez given how different the game was back then compared to how it is now.
For me, in the modern era it comes down to a battle between four players – Matfield, Eales, Johnson and O’Connell. Three World Cup winners against a man who has amassed more than 100 Test caps for Ireland, travelled on three British and Irish Lions tours – captaining the 2009 side in South Africa – won two Heiniken Cups, three Six Nations titles, four Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam to boot.
Now, granted, O’Connell’s team achievements don’t quite live up to some of the others in contention but I believe no one helped elevate their country more than O’Connell did, a fact that cannot be slept on given Ireland’s relative lack of international success prior to O’Connell’s introduction to the national team.
I hold the others in the highest regard as players, far from it as people for some or sports broadcasters for others, but as players Eales, Johnson and Matfield were among the very best but did play for countries whose rugby reputations and programs were already at an extremely high level.
O’Connell, along with others on those Irish teams helped cultivate a culture and turnaround a mentality from visitors to victors, and it took years of sustained consistency, leadership and improvement to do so. The same could be said for England and Australia as neither team have really experienced the same international dominance and success since Eales and Johnson’s respective departures, but I feel like O’Connell has had a greater impact on Ireland than those players.
Unfortunately, for the average fan concrete statistics are hard to find to settle such arguments as statistics and team and individual achievement are usually the best metrics to settle such disputes. It would be great to compare the percentages of lineouts won, stolen, tackles made, average metres per carry etc. for all these great players to see who was ultimately the most effective on the field.
But until that day comes where that type of data is widely accessible, we unfortunately have to settle for subjective debate and as far as this writer is concerned, Paul O’Connell will go down as the very best lock to play the game.