'It's the first time I've had no long-term ambition for anything' – Paul O'Connell

There’s a ripple of excitement in the restaurant of the Hunt Museum in Limerick as one of the city’s most famous sons walks through. All heads turn as his imposing frame passes by, a mix of awe and respect on the faces of diners. If he’s aware of the effect he has, Paul O’Connell certainly doesn’t show it. He stops to chat with diners and staff alike, each of them proud to call him one of their own.

Having arrived in Limerick earlier this morning from Paris – where he took up the position of forwards coach with Stade Français last summer – the former Munster, Ireland and Lions rugby captain is back on home turf to lend his support to the Team Limerick Clean-up (TLC) event.

Sponsored by the JP McManus Benevolent Fund, the clean-up has been taking place in Limerick since 2015 and has seen over 360 tonnes of litter – the equivalent of 14,500 household wheelie bins – gathered from the streets by volunteers. O’Connell’s ambassadorial role with TLC has seen him join the tens of thousands of Limerick citizens for the clean-up, which takes place on Good Friday every year. He’s hoping he’ll be back in town for this year’s event, on April 19, too.

Over coffee, O’Connell explains that the idea was born right there in the Hunt Museum when he sat down with JP McManus and Helen O’Donnell, who runs the museum’s restaurant. “I said: ‘Why don’t we try and get everybody out for one day a year and we can start developing an understanding of not littering and being involved in community groups.’ That’s where the idea for TLC came from – over a cup of tea,” he says. “We had 14,000 people the first year and we had over 18,500 people last year. We’ve had over 60,000 people take part.

“We’re hoping we’ll get people out this Good Friday morning. It doesn’t take two minutes to sign up – we send you high-vis jackets, bags, gloves and signs to make sure you’re safe wherever you’re doing it. You leave your rubbish at various collection points and our partner for the event, Mr Binman, comes around that evening and lifts every single piece of rubbish that’s picked on Good Friday morning so there’s nothing left.

“The big thing is to give people and kids the right habits around litter. If their parents are taking them out for the morning, they understand. Limerick gets two things: it gets a big clean up and we get a bit of preventative work done because kids learn about not littering.”

O’Connell’s watch is still showing local time in France. He’ll catch a plane back to the French capital once his ambassadorial duties for TLC wrap up. Despite time being something of a precious commodity for the in-demand former rugby international, he talks easily about his new life in Paris and how he, his wife Emily and their children Paddy (8), Lola (4) and baby Felix (1) are settling in.

They’ve made their home in the west of the city – he went out last July to find accommodation and Emily and the kids followed him in October. The two older children are immersing themselves in all-French schools. Their father jokes that when they speak French now they’ve lovely accents but when he speaks it, his Limerick accent comes out.

He is, he says, working hard on mastering the language. Since he went to an all-Irish school in Limerick and learned some French and German there, his linguistic muscles were stretched early on. “I’m working very hard on it. I’ve about three hours of lessons a week and then I do my own work a lot of the time. I try and read the newspapers in French. I watch French movies and series when we’re travelling. Sometimes I feel I’m worse than when I started but then there’s other days I feel I’m really moving on,” he says.

Moving on from player to coach has shaken up the family’s routine – and not just with the move to France. “In some ways coaching is a very difficult thing from a family point of view because you’ve a game on Saturday, you’ve about five or six hours of video analysis on the laptop on Sunday. You work two very long days Monday and Tuesday,” he says. “I try and take Wednesday off. In Paris in the primary schools, the kids have Wednesday off so that’s a good family day. Thursday, Friday you’re back in at work and it starts again on Saturday.”

He traces some of his work ethic back to his life before rugby, when he was an accomplished swimmer. “I was sent to swimming lessons when I was four and I ended up competing very quickly. When I was about 12 or 13 I trained more in a week than I ever did as a professional rugby player,” he says, listing out a schedule of 14 hours in the pool, which ran across seven days and before and after school.

“I gave it up when I was 15. At that time I was looking at all my friends in school playing rugby and all the great things that come with being on a team. Even though you’re part of a team in swimming, your head is under the water and you’re looking at tiles a lot of the time. I was looking over my shoulder at the kids on the rugby team thinking ‘that looks like a lot of fun’.”

Transitioning his rugby from fun hobby to professional career took not just talent but focus. When he spoke at a leadership conference in Dublin last year, O’Connell shared his advice about where you’re going in life and how to get there. For him, writing things down is important – and when he spots my bullet journal on the table in front of us, he’s very interested in how the notebook/planner works.

His own method of setting targets involves putting them down on paper. “I didn’t have big long-term goals. I had what I would call challenges. We used to train with GPS on the back of our jerseys so you knew how many metres you were covering, how many sprints you did in training or how many accelerations. I’d have a little challenge of how many of those I wanted to hit in training. I’d have little reminders – three meals by 1pm or bed by 10pm or whatever it was. I think everyone learns in different ways but I’m big into writing things down. If I want to figure something out in my head, I want to write it down. If I want to commit to doing something, I need to write it down and I need to put a box beside it. I either put an X in that box at the end of the week or I put a tick in the box. If I put an X in the box I try and figure out why I didn’t do it and what I need to do differently. If I put a tick in the box it gives you confidence.”

He admits he spent many years obsessed by winning and losing. “Even though I love rugby, I struggled to enjoy it – sometimes because you either finished the year with a trophy or you didn’t, and you were either a success or a failure, which is a really wrong way of looking at sports at all. There’s a great quote from a basketball coach John Wooden who said success isn’t about winning or losing. He said success is a peace of mind that comes from doing everything you can to be the best you can be.

“That’s what I was living by towards the end. I used to set little short-term goals or challenges that would help me get better so I could be the best I could be. Whether that resulted in winning or losing, it probably made the defeats a bit easier. At least I knew I was doing everything I could to be the best I could be.”

In his playing career the goals were easily defined but today, three years after injury forced his retirement as a player somewhat earlier than intended, O’Connell says he hasn’t set out new boxes to tick.

“Whether you write them down or not, [for players] all the goals are pretty much explicit; you want to win a World Cup, you want to win a Six Nations, you want to win a European Cup, you want to win a Lions Tour, you want to be the best player you can be. They’re all there for you. From a coaching point of view first of all you have to figure out if it’s something you really passionately want to do because it’s a big investment of time, stress and pressure. That’s what I’m doing at the moment.

“It’s probably the first time I’ve had no long-term ambition for anything. I’m in Paris to see if I want to coach. I’m there to learn the language, experience the culture, experience being away from Limerick for a while, experience being away from Munster for a little while. I’m actually stopping myself from making any long-term plans all the time because coaching is a very enjoyable, rewarding and fulfilling job but it’s also a very tough job from a family point of view and even from a health point of view.”

Like so many of us, O’Connell finds it hard to fit gym sessions into a demanding work schedule. “I know lots of people don’t have time to train with their jobs, but when you’ve played rugby professionally for a long time you’ve a lot of aches, a lot of bumps and bruises. You have to look after your body. One of the frustrating things for me is I haven’t had as much time to train as I would have liked or to eat as well as I would’ve liked.”

That said, being a professional athlete has left him with a disciplined approach to food. “You get a great appreciation of eating well and of how to have a balanced diet from rugby. So many people I know are on one extreme or another. They’re either eating way too much or they’re starving themselves, or they’re not eating any bread or any desserts.

“I would eat very healthily. I eat lots of fruit and vegetables, meat, fish. When I am out I will always eat dessert. I will always have the sauce on my steak so I think I’ve a good balance.”

The balance and good habits learned through sport are something that O’Connell says he’s keen for his children to embrace.

“I’ve a four-year-old girl now; this is a big thing for me. I look at all the values that I learned from sport. If you get a big head on a team you get cut down to size very quickly. If you’re not playing well it’s great to be part of a team. It’s great to have someone other than your parents who’s an authoritative figure in your life as well.

“I had some amazing coaches in swimming, golf and rugby who were very good to me. You learn great values around how to win and how to lose and how to be part of a team, about discipline and about being on time for training. A lot of boys get that from sport. Probably not enough girls get it from sport. My boy (Paddy) played in a lovely GAA club called Monaleen and they have a great girls set-up as well. Hopefully I’ll be back in time for my girl to play some sports there, whether it’s Gaelic football or camogie. I think it’s really important for girls to play sports.”

He shakes his head when asked if he’s a competitive parent. “I think I’ve the potential to be competitive with them but I hope I’m self-aware enough to be able to back away and leave them at it. I don’t care about them being good or bad at sports really. I’d love them to stay involved in sports for as long as they can and I’d love them to train hard and work hard at being their best.

“Even when I was a professional player the people I enjoyed the most were the people that it didn’t matter what their talent was, they worked hard and they trained hard and that’s what I’d like to see for my kids. Show up to training, give it your all and enjoy it. If you do that I think you’ll be happy.”

In October 2016 the world of rugby was shocked and devastated by the death of head coach for Munster, Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley. Older than O’Connell by a few years, he grew up hearing of Axel as a schools rugby legend.

“Even if you only met Axel when you were 25 you probably knew about him from when you were 12 or 13 years of age. For a lot of us in the Munster team he went from being our hero, who we didn’t know, to being a very close friend, to being our coach and then being gone. It’s tough,” says O’Connell.

“He’s been a massive loss to everyone close to him. What you saw with Anthony was what you got. He was very blunt and honest and it’s only when he’s gone you realise how important his advice was. Some people – you can sit down with them for an hour to discuss a topic and while you get some good advice from them, you’ve probably discussed so many things, you don’t know where you are. With Anthony you could sit down to talk about something and within five minutes he’d have got to the nub of the point, he’d have told you what he thought and it would be yours to go and do with the information what you would.”

Last weekend, Ireland’s Six Nations campaign drew to a disappointing end with a lacklustre performance against Wales. Having been such an integral part of the team for so long, it must be hard for O’Connell to watch from the stands now – particularly with the World Cup approaching. Does he miss his playing days? “When you’re playing, you’re on the job 24 hours a day because if you’re not training, you’re watching what you’re eating, you might be doing some video work or physio work, chatting to coaches or trying to make sure you get to bed on time. You’re never off. Even if you’re out with friends you’re checking the clock to see how late it is because you need to get home and get to bed and plan the next day. I miss that sense of purpose from when I played.”

What advice would he give to the young players who dream of becoming the next Paul O’Connell? “Work on your skills. I probably took the game too seriously too young and didn’t develop my skills as much as I should have. Tactically, I was a smart player and I was a good lineout operator. I would have liked to have taken more risks when I played; passed more and off loaded more.

“Don’t worry too much about winning and losing. Do everything you can to be the best player you can be and the best team mate you can be. If you do that, I think you’ll enjoy the game more and you’ll be a better player.

“When I made that shift towards the end of my career, I ended up training harder and playing a lot better. Winning and losing wasn’t the sole focus of playing anymore.”

Before he leaves to catch his flight back to Paris, I ask him what a perfect weekend looks like for the O’Connells.

“It’s probably a home game so I’m not away in a hotel on Friday night so I’m at home with the family. It’s probably us winning the game on Saturday with an early kick-off so I get to meet the family afterwards. It’s probably a healthy dinner at home and a movie with the kids.”

The perfect Sunday starts with a cooked breakfast before they head off on their scooters, taking the Metro into Paris to see the sights or just staying local.

He tells me the family split into teams for the quintessentially French game of boules the other day, with him and Lola teaming up against Emily and Paddy. “We went off and had a hot chocolate afterwards. We went to the park. It was just a lovely day. For me that’s a nice day in Paris.”

For more information or to register for the TLC,

see teamlimerickcleanup.ie

Portraits by Don Moloney

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