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10th Jul 2023

Paul O’Connell on his most treasured jersey swap and toughest opponent

Patrick McCarry

“I loved him as a player.”

Paul O’Connell was one of the fiercest competitors to ever pull on a red [Munster], green [Ireland] or red [Lions] jersey. Off the pitch, though, and when the game was settled, he was just a massive fan of the game, and had his own favourite players too.

The former Munster and Ireland lock is now part of Andy Farrell’s coaching staff, and helping the next generation of players to prepare for the World Cup in France.

We had a chance to chat with O’Connell, earlier this year, when he was down at the International Rugby Experience, down in Limerick. At the time, he raised some eyebrows – and got plenty of people agreeing with him – when he said Antoine Dupont, although only 26, is already the greatest ever rugby player. It was a take Johnny Sexton would be agreeable with.

During our catch-up with O’Connell, he also revealed his two toughest opponents, his favourite stadium to play in and his most cherished jersey swap.

Paul O'ConnellMunster and Ireland legend, Paul O’Connell, pictured at an awards event in 2014. (Credit: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE)

Paul O’Connell’s toughest opponents

Asked for his toughest opponents, from his 15-year senior career, Paul O’Connell told us, “Well in my position, there’s probably two of them.

“Victor Matfield, in the second row, it was like you could read your mind at the line out. But Fabian Pelous, as well, was one of my favourite players. Such a tall man, a great height, and everything he did, whether it was tackle, ball, carry, clean out rucks. So both second row forwards, I’d go for are Victor Matfield and Fabian Pelous.”

In a 2020 interview with us for House of Rugby, Matfield said O’Connell was the Test player that he found the hardest to go up against. ”

“Paul is probably the best player I played against in my position, especially when it came to lineouts. It also helped him a lot when [forwards coach] Gert Smal joined. I worked with Gert for four to six years and Gert knew exactly how I thought about the lineout and I believe he definitely shared that with Paul O’Connell. It was always very difficult to go up against him because he almost knew what I was thinking, especially when Gert was there.

“And he was also a guy that studied the game, and he studied the lineouts as well. I was going up against someone that was prepared, and a great guy off the field as well. Always had time for him afterwards. So, yeah, he was definitely my toughest opponent.”

As for his favourite stadium to play in, O’Connell named Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, which was called the Millennium Stadium when he was pitching up. It was the same ground he won both Heineken Cups, with Munster, and the 2009 Six Nations Grand Slam.

“It’s in the middle of the city crowd are generally drunk, which adds to the atmosphere,” he remarked. “Then you have the roof closed, which adds to the atmosphere, too. It’s a great stadium.”

Paul O'ConnellIreland’s Paul O’Connell and Marcus Horan celebrate at the final whistle as Alun-Wyn Jones and Martyn Williams, Wales, look on. (Credit: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE)

Paul O’Connell on treasured jersey swap

Having played the toughest and the best on the Test stage from 2002 to 2015, Paul O’Connell had the opportunity to trade jerseys with some true modern day icons.

Asked for his favourite jersey swap, he names a Wales legend and a former British & Irish Lions teammate.

“I have Martin Williams’ jersey,” he told us. “It is from when we beat Wales [in 2010], that was the jersey. I shouldn’t have kept it, actually. I think he became Wales’ most capped forward that day. It was his 95th cap.

“I loved him as a player. He was a brilliant player, but great fun off the field as well. I went on the Lions tour with him [in 2009], so became very friendly with him. I was delighted to get a hold of his jersey.”

In the previous round of that 2010 Six Nations tournament, Williams had equalled the 94-cap record of forward Colin Charvis. Two weeks later, he set that new benchmark when he started against Ireland, at Croke Park. Ireland won 27-12 that day, with Keith Earls scoring two tries.

Williams was stuck on 99 Test caps for a year but made it to 100 when Wales took on the Barbarians at Millennium Stadium, in November 2012.


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