The image of Paul O’Connell rising like a great tower into the air to field a lineout ball was not only one that rugby fans the world over became accustomed to for seventeen years, but is also an appropriate metaphor for the man’s rugby career as a whole.
Through his hard work and determination, O’Connell grew, as a man and as a player, steadily upward, going from strength to strength as the seasons rolled by to become one of the world’s top second-rows.
O’Connell retired in 2016 as a significantly decorated player, having notched up 178 caps for Munster, 108 for Ireland and 7 for the British & Irish Lions.
Born in Limerick, O’Connell’s initial sporting path was swimming, which he focussed on until the age of 16 when he only first started playing rugby.
His tenacity and hard work were evident from a young age, however, and he soon found himself representing the Ireland Schools XV in 1997 and 1998 before making the grade for Ireland U21 a couple of years later.
O’Connell was, as was plain to see, a natural leader and, since his debut for Ireland in 2002, it was only a matter of time until the reigns would be passed to him to lead his country.
Two short years later, O’Connell was chosen to captain Ireland in the absence of the injured Brian O’Driscoll in the opening game of the 2004 Six Nations Championship.
O’Connell’s greatest responsibility in his rugby career was bestowed upon him by Sir Ian McGeechan when the latter requested that he captain the British & Irish Lions team to tour South Africa in 2009.
O’Connell had previously done duty for the Lions four years earlier in New Zealand, standing out as one of the most promising young players. The task of captaining the team, however, was a colossal responsibility that O’Connell, despite the series loss, carried with aplomb – his inspirational and courageous leadership is still remembered fondly by all who were involved on the tour.
In 2016, O'connell retired from rugby on medical advice. He remains one of Ireland's most loved past players and an embodiment of fearless leadership in the professional era.