At the Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier for the 2013 Heineken Cup semi-final, Clermont fans unfurled a banner declaring 'O'Connell! Kearney says he sorry for head-butting your foot'.
They were referring an incident two weeks earlier during a league game between Munster and Leinster where O'Connell made contact with Dave Kearney's head while the winger was lying on the ground.
In his autobiography, 'The Battle', released this week O'Connell recalls the incident. He feels it was totally accidental but also confesses that it was reckless.
I was five metres away and I only had eyes for the ball. I knew Dave was going to place it and my mindset in those situations, when the ball was loose and bodies were steaming in was usually to kick it rather than pick it up.
He tried to place it but I was in too quick. When I watched in on YouTube later that night, and saw my right shin striking Dave's head just as my boot made contact with the ball, I realised it had been reckless. In slow motion, it looked terrible. But it was also completely accidental.
I had taken a hit from Brian O'Driscoll a split second later, but I was up off the ground and over to Dave straight away. I wasn't aware then that I'd caught him as hard as I had, but I knew he was in trouble. For a short time he was out cold, but I could see he was conscious when they took him off on a stretcher. I was relieved that he seemed to be OK, but he was on my mind any time there was a break in play for the rest of the game.
After the game, O'Connell went looking for Kearney both to check up on him and apologise. He met one of Leinster's medical staff, Dr. Arthur Tanner, who told him not to worry, 'we won't be doing anything'. It caught O'Connell by surprise. It had never occurred to him that he could be cited.
The support O'Connell was provided by Brian O'Driscoll was not bolstered by Joe Schmidt and Leo Cullen. Both the Leinster head coach and captain criticised the decision not to cite O'Connell. The Munster man felt this exacerbated the situation and gave it life in the media that it otherwise would not have had.
I was thrown by that. I thought: Why would they even be thinking like that? The idea that they might cite me for some-thing I saw as blatantly accidental hadn't entered my mind. I played the game hard, but I thought it would be accepted that the incident was accidental: that I wouldn't intentionally kick anyone in the head.
I hung around, hoping to meet Dave so that I could apologise. When he came out, he was fine about it but I was conscious that he was still shaken up and groggy. We spoke again over the phone on the Monday. Brian had sent me Dave's number, along with a message of support. It was a text I appreciated, because by then it was already a big story and he must have known which way the wind was blowing in Leinster.
Another thoughtful text came from Deccie:
'Unfortunately it's going to be trial by media for a few days. Don't let it bother you.'
Whether I was cited or not, the story was always going to get another few days of airplay. But then Joe Schmidt and Leo Cullen, the Leinster head coach and captain, gave it enough legs to carry it into the following week. They criticised the decision not to cite me and talked about a bad example being set to children.
O'Connell does admit that however tough it was for him, it was even worse for Dave Kearney due to him being out of action for a month at a time which he was just starting to make inroads in his Leinster career.
Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE