The last time Paul O’Connell was visible to the public was in the stands of the Millennium Stadium, watching Ireland’s quarter-final defeat to Argentina on an iPad. And then being whisked off in a Land Rover to the airport on his way to catch a flight back to Ireland.
Since then Irish rugby has been through a post-mortem, with every supporter, coach, journalist and analyst pulling apart why Ireland yet again failed to break into the world’s top four for the eighth time since 1987.
Today, O’Connell made his first public appearance since, through his duties as a brand ambassador and shareholder for Pinergy, a new energy saving app, at The Westbury Hotel. And with it a horde of rugby writers descended on the legendary Dublin 2 venue to listen to what the lock forward had to say.
And it wasn’t particularly good news for the athlete, or for his new club, three-time European champions Toulon, as the 36-year-old revealed that the hamstring tear he suffered playing in Ireland’s victory over France would require six to eight months recovery time.
“It’s very approximate. But it could be four, it could be eight months [before I can play again]. You just don’t know,” said O’Connell. “The surgeon was very happy with how it went. He doesn’t see problems, but I’ve had a lot of injuries and have had ups and downs, so I would be naïve to think it will be all plain sailing. I’m just going to follow the protocols religiously as I’ve always done. Hopefully that can get me back playing before the end of the season.”
As for his world since suffering the injury, it has been a case of doing as little as possible in the intervening time. “I had the operation on the Thursday [after beating France] and I’ve basically been on the flat of my back since, and I got out of a hotel to go to the Argentina game,” said O’Connell.
“Then we travelled home and I’ve literally been on the flat of my back for the last two weeks.
“I’m pain free on the flat of my back, well I was pain free for a week on the flat of my back. I’m pain free sitting down for about [the last] four days.
“The Munster lads took me out twice. Emily [his wife] took me for a pizza once. Apart from that I haven’t left the house [until today].
“It’s a frustrating time. I spoke to the physio in Toulon lat week. It’s an injury you just have to do your time with. A lot of injuries – a shoulder or a cruciate – there’s a lot you can do straight away. But this one you have to put down a really tough six weeks where you’re really careful.
“Particularly the first two weeks. If you slip and stretch the hamstring you could be in trouble. If you slip and stretch the hamstring there is so much bleeding there it’s hard to tell if it’s right or wrong. It's a really awkward injury.”
Throughout his career, O’Connell has epitomised mental strength and fortitude, and his view on his recovery is symbolic of those cerebral skills.
“I’ve had a lot of injuries in my career, but I’ve never really struggled with them,” continued O’Connell. “I’ve never really got down about them too much.
“There’s obviously a period of disappointment straight away, but it doesn’t linger long with me.
“The only thing is when I’ve been injured in the past there was always another day. You can start planning, ‘I’ll be back for the Six Nations, I’ll be back for the summer tour, I’ll be back for the autumn internationals.’
"The killer with this one is that there is no more of that [after retirement from international rugby] and that’s the frustrating thing about it.
“You really want to end on a high and the high in the World Cup for Ireland was the second half against France, and I didn’t even get to play in that.”
As for the future, O’Connell and family will make the move to the south of France to commence their new life in Toulon in a month’s time, as the former Young Munster clubman looks to play for his new club before the season’s end.
“We’re hoping to move to France in December. We have to pack up the house, we need to move, but I can’t do anything. I can’t pick my daughter Lola up. So there’s a lot of things we need to do and plan before making the move over there,” said O’Connell.
“I wish I was going over injury free on the back of a good World Cup. It’s always going to be a challenge at 36 to make an impression. Now it’s going to be even more difficult. The challenge for me now is to go over and be as good as I can" - Paul O'Connell
“It’s the worst injury pain I’ve had because the sciatic nerve runs really close to where the tendon is.
“Apparently when you pull the tendon off the bone, you get a lot bruising and swelling straight away, which hits the sciatic nerve. That’s where the pain comes from.
“I remember [when I got the injury] thinking I’ve only pulled my hamstring I better get up. But when the physio came on I got up and it was too sore and I got stretchered off. I was on the gas after that and I didn’t think too much after that.”
The former Munster player has been in regular contact with his new Top 14 club and admits his family are hugely excited by the move, while he is understandably frustrated by the idea of starting a contract on the back of a major injury.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of people at Toulon: Tom Whitford - the manager; Terry Stone - the physio; Paul Stridgeon - the strength and conditioning coach. I’ve had plenty of contact.
“I wish I was going over injury free on the back of a good World Cup. It’s always going to be a challenge at 36 to make an impression. Now it’s going to be even more difficult. The challenge for me now is to go over and be as good as I can.
“My family are really excited by the move. I’m a little worried by my son Paddy going into school at five-years-old with no French, but they tell me that they take to it [learning the language] very easily. But I’m dreading his first day of school when I leave him off and he isn’t able to talk to anyone or understand what's going on.
“But I’m really looking forward to the move and they’re really looking forward to the move.
“It’s definitely going to be different to Munster. I’m not going to pretend it’s going to be the same. But it’s something I’m really looking forward to experiencing.
“I think Irish players have this opinion it’s better that we play for the province we grew up wanting to play for and how can you feel the same for another club?
“But you look at what Johnny Wilkinson and other players went through down there. They really identified with the area and the club and I’m really looking forward to that.”
O’Connell’s lucrative two-year, €1m-a-season contract brings up him up to the summer of 2017, the very same summer that the Lions will tour New Zealand looking for a first Test-series victory in the Land of the Long White Cloud since 1971, and the idea of O’Connell having one last hurrah as part of that team is a heroic and mythical one. But as far as he is concerned that would be bridge too far and his playing days will end with the close of that year’s European club season.
O’Connell said: “It would be definitely a no to playing for the Lions. The last few years have been a challenge. There are certain weights that I just can’t do that other players can do. There’s a certain amount of time on my feet that I can do, and other guys can do more. I just think the Lions 2017 would be a little bit too far.”
The pain for Irish rugby derived from failing to make the semi-finals at the RWC is going to linger for a long time. Until Japan 2019 at least. When asked what Ireland need to do to bridge the gap with the southern hemisphere’s big four, O’Connell was certain that making the game a day-in, day-out activity for children is the way forward for the sport in Ireland.
“The big shame is that we didn’t make a semi-final and go further. I even see it on my road at home. They’re rugby mad now after the World Cup. The soccer is back on now and they’re beginning to play a bit more soccer and soon it’s going to be hurling,” said O’Connell.
“The challenge for us is the skill level. Tony Buckley [the former Munster and Ireland prop] was down in New Zealand when he was younger and the young lads would go out for small break [in school] and play touch rugby and go out for big break and play contact rugby, and then they would have rugby training after school. When we have a small and big break we probably play soccer. In Kilkenny they probably play hurling.
“A New Zealander has probably accumulated a couple of hundreds or thousands more hours of rugby than an Irish kid has. That’s why I’m disappointed we didn’t make the semi-finals or final, as I think we could have changed a little bit of that [in Irish culture].
“I just think it’s part of New Zealand culture. And I keep going back to Kilkenny; hurling is part of their culture. If Henry Shefflin was playing rugby he’d be playing first centre. The best brains in hurling would be in rugby. You’d have Brian Cody involved in rugby" - Paul O'Connell
“I just think it’s part of New Zealand culture. And I keep going back to Kilkenny; hurling is part of their culture. If Henry Shefflin was playing rugby he’d be playing first centre. The best brains in hurling would be in rugby. You’d have Brian Cody involved in rugby.
“That’s the challenge for rugby in Ireland. You want to see kids walking down the road with a rugby ball. We need to try and bridge the gap and I think that’s where the skill level will improve. I think we punch way above our weight.”
The doom and gloom surrounding the chances of an Irish team ever making a World Cup final, or winning the Webb Ellis Cup outright, have been swirling for the last two weeks. But is that too negative? Too downbeat? For O’Connell, yes, is the answer, and he feels the gap is far closer between the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere than it used to be.
“We’re definitely more competitive with the southern hemisphere than we were when I was growing up. I do think there’s an awful lot of really good things happening,” said O’Connell.
“The last two Six Nations wins have been incredible. It created a brilliant appetite for rugby in the country.
“If we could have followed it up at the World Cup, who knows what would have happened.
“I think we’ll continue to improve and produce players. I think the Munster-Ulster Pro12 game on Friday was one of the best provincial derbies in a long time. I thought the skill level was brilliant. The offloading was brilliant. It just goes to show what we can do.”