No countdown of European rugby greats could exclude Munster’s man-mountain, Paul O’Connell. Coming in at number four, POC epitomises the ‘Stand Up and Fight’ mantra of Munster rugby.
4. Paul O’Connell (Munster)
Figures don’t come more foreboding than the giant frame of Munster icon Paul O’Connell. The current Irish captain, and three time British and Irish Lion is one of the greatest exponents of the second row ever. O’Connell has lined out 174 times for Munster, 92 times for Ireland and 7 times for the Lions (including 3 times as test captain in 2009), but he seems to reserve his very best for the Heineken Cup, a competition he has graced on 76 occasions.
The Limerick man has been present throughout the glory days and now as the Munster universe is in transition around him, the giant lock is one of the few remaining on field links to the 2006 and 2008 successes. He remains the central axis around which the Red Army revolves. He may no longer be the captain, but O’Connell will always be the team’s spiritual leader.
A noted swimmer in his youth O’Connell certainly made a splash in his debut European campaign, playing a pivotal role in the engine room as Munster powered to a second final in three seasons. Unfortunately for O’Connell his first exposure to Europe’s showpiece game ended in defeat, as it had for the province two seasons previous. The memory of that defeat fuelled his desire, and the victories in 2006 and 2008 were just rewards for a Munster team that had been through the ringer in Europe.
Munster are responsible for many of the iconic moments in Heineken Cup history, none more so than this tackle and drive on Sebastien Chabal from the 2009 victory over the English side Sale Sharks. Chabal was the focal point of the visiting Sale team, and in a must win game for Munster, O’Connell led the charge in dismantling the aura surrounding the ‘Caveman’. As was so often the case O’Connell’s actions were a catalyst for a great Munster victory.
In recent seasons the second row has had to deal with a myriad of injuries, he went nearly two years without representing Ireland between February 2012 and November 2013, yet miraculously his Heineken Cup record has been remarkably consistent. The lure of the red jersey has seen most of his ailments dissolve in time to compete for his home province on Europe’s main stage. His performance against Harlequins in the quarter final of the 2013 competition, when Munster were huge underdogs, was one of the all-time great outings in the competition’s history. Despite being drastically low on game time after a lengthy lay-off, O’Connell was at his talismanic best on a day when he led Munster to turn the form book on its head and gain an unlikely away victory.
The Heineken Cup was always the holy grail for Munster and while they haven’t claimed success since 2008, O’Connell has been consistently adding to his personal haul of silverware in the meantime. He was part of the Irish Grand Slam victory in 2009 and was Irish captain this season as he led the men in green to a Six Nations championship. He has also been involved in four Celtic League successes with his province. In a golden era of Irish rugby the Munster hero was a pillar on which his teammates in red and green always leaned on.
O’Connell always leads his team with a fearsome aggression. An aggression that can sometimes boil over on the field of play and the sight of the red headed warrior physically battling an opponent on the field is not uncommon. This tussle with Clermont lock Jamie Cudmore is one in a lengthy list of brawls he has been engaged in.
His career in red has gone through peaks and troughs, he came in at the tail end of the original Munster break through at the start of this century. While the provinces form dipped after their 2002 final defeat, they recovered their status as one of the continent’s best teams with triumphs in 2006 and 2008 in what was a glorious time for Munster rugby. Since that last victory Ireland’s Southern province has gone through its least successful period in the Heineken Cup, failing to make a final in the intervening six years. As the Heineken Cup concludes, Munster may not sit top of the roll of honour but their imprint will remain intertwined with the competition for ever, largely due to the influences of their legendary players like O’Connell.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.
You can catch the rest of our countdown of the Greatest Heineken Cup Players of All Time here.