Paul O’Connell is bound for the sunny climes of Toulon. It’s a richly deserved payday for the all-time great second row, but don’t for one second imagine that he’s heading down there just to get the sun on his back and gently wind down his career.
The first indicator that this is the case is that the deal is for two years, so it’s not just a post-World cup lap of honour. The second signifier is that this is Toulon, where full and total buy-in to the local rugby hotbed’s way of doing business is required. None of Bakkies Botha, Jonny Wilkinson or Simon Shaw were coasting when they headed to Toulon in the latter part of their careers, and Paul O’Connell won’t be either. The third, and most obvious clue is that we’re talking about Paul O’Connell, a man who knows only one way of playing: at full throttle.
The length of the deal may raise a few eyebrows. Two more years will take O’Connell up over the age of 38, but on close inspection it’s not unreasonable to expect O’Connell will still be going strong at that stage. Last we checked O’Connell was still playing at an exceptionally high level. His standard has scarcely tailed off in any way. Sure, there was the odd quiet game, like the Saracens nightmare this year, where he didn’t bring his usual ferocity to bear on the match, but that looks like a rare one-off rather than a bellweather of any precipitous decline.
Plus, O’Connell hasn’t quite as many miles on the clock as you might think. He had his share of injuries that kept him out of the game for long periods and, if anything, he is as fit as ever: he’s right in the middle of as long an injury-free run as can be remembered. He’s going to be an indispensable member of Ireland’s world cup bid, and if he’s good enough for that, he’s good enough to keep going through the rest of the season with Toulon.
There has been some loose talk of release for Ireland training camps, but it appears wrong-headed. Almost certainly, for all the points made above, O’Connell won’t have the reserves of energy to devote himself to both Toulon and Ireland, and will retire from international footie after the World Cup. It makes sense that he hand over the reigns of captaincy to Jamie Heaslip and his role as lock enforcer to Iain Henderson for the next four-year-cycle.
No Munsterman will begrudge O’Connell two years in Toulon, even if they end up coming face-to-face with him in the European Cup, as fate will surely decree they will at some stage. There is crazy talk of the province looking for a contractual clause that he can’t face them, but that’s ridiculous on so many levels – not least the fact that it would be the preference of the likes of Dave Foley and Billy Holland to face the big man. So here’s hoping he turns out at Thomond Park for one last time. If only there existed an all-encompassing word to describe the almost mythical nature of his contribution to Munster and Irish rugby, we would apply it to this man.