“To get capped by Ireland by the end of 2003.”
Paul O’Connell, November 1999.
This was one of a number of career goals Paul O’Connell wrote down on a piece of paper while he sat in a deli with a Young Munster teammate, one morning in Limerick 23 years ago.
For context of where O’Connell was in his career at that moment, the first goal he jotted down was to become a regular in the Young Munster first choice XV.
He would conquer this goal in due course, ahead of time, and would continue to push the limits of what he could achieve, while breaking down barriers, for the rest of his illustrious career.
Fast-forward to late winter 2002. The beginning of the Six Nations is imminent, as is Eddie O’Sullivan’s tenure as head coach of Ireland, and O’Connell’s tenure as Ireland’s greatest ever lock forward.
Warren Gatland had suffered an acrimonious sacking as Ireland coach, to be replaced by his assistant O’Sullivan. Gatland’s revenge would be to become one of the best and most successful rugby union coaches of all time over the next 15 years.
That being said, O’Sullivan’s reign brought many memorable days and he played a big part in the renaissance of Irish rugby after the dark days of the 1990s.
The 2002 squad were in their pre-pubescent stage, in the process of integrating a new era of players, before they peaked in 2007.
Many of the old guard were still there, Mick Galway, Peter Clohessy, Keith Wood, and Anthony Foley to name a few.
The faces spearheading the new breed were the likes of Ronan O’Gara, Shane Horgan, Brian O’Driscoll, Geordan Murphy, Peter Stringer, and David Wallace. Gatland had famously debuted many of them in a Six Nations clash with Scotland in 2000.
There were greater expectations on this side going into the 2002 Six Nations after their exploits in 2001. The previous year they had beaten both England and France, only to be denied a Grand Slam by Scotland. They finished level on points with England but second on points difference.
Ireland vs Wales 2002 Six Nations: A Debut For Paul O'Connell
O’Connell wasn’t expecting to start against Wales on February 3rd, in Ireland's opening match of the 2002 Six Nations. If Malcolm O’Kelly was out injured he was sure that the more experienced Gary Longwell would team up with Mick Galwey in the second row.
When his name was called in the starting XV - one of eight Munster forwards named to start that day - Denis Hickie was the first over, and congratulated him with the words, “enjoy the mayhem”.
Prophetic insight from the Leinster winger considering the bittersweet nature of O’Connell’s Irish debut.
It was a beautiful moment when Paul O’Connell arose from a stack of bodies on the Welsh try line. Still with his ginger hair that poked through his Rugbytech scrum cap, on one knee, fist-pumping and shouting with joy after scoring a try on his debut. Many an Irish fan remembers it well, but O’Connell does not. He has zero memory of that moment, and does not remember much of his first half of international rugby.
In his autobiography The Battle he describes what happened.
“The last thing I remember before it all went blank, happened twelve minutes and thirty eight seconds into the game. We were 10-0 ahead and playing well. I was running up behind Simon Easterby and he went to catch a kick-off. I recall it clearly and then it’s like someone zapped a TV screen and then switched it back on 17 minutes later.
“I’ve seen the missing minutes back and it’s the strangest feeling, remembering none of it when you’re watching yourself scoring a try for your country on your debut. I was laid out on the pitch but I came around after fifteen seconds and got back into position.”
Peter Stringer would later escort O’Connell off the pitch, before the team doctor Mick Griffin rushed over to take control.
O’Connell tried his best to prove to Griffin he was well enough to get back on the pitch. He counted backwards from five and even managed to remember his phone number. But he couldn’t remember the lineout calls, and chastised Griffin for not letting him back on two and a half minutes into his debut (it was almost 2:30pm) even though it was nearly half-time.
When he took his place in the stands there were tears in his eyes, however the sadness he felt was surely eased when he saw the halftime highlights of his debut try.
It was the first of many highlights throughout a legendary 13 year international career, and remarkably it was only the first of two concussions.
The sky was the limit for the young man. On to the next goal in his notebook.
“To be the Test incumbent second-row for the Lions in 2005.”