There is something alarming about Paul O’Connell’s forearms; or at least I think there is. I hope this has nothing whatsoever with prejudices I may have against Irishmen, Ginger Monsters or ham, but there is something in the club-like nature of that leading section of his limbs which has the worryingly hypnotic power normally associated with unhinged propellers. Or – I suppose – mad, ginger-haired Irish hams.
Not that the recently reappointed skipper is himself either fully or sectionally unhinged – far from it. In fact, on the contrary, there is something (else?) both powerful and controlling about the Second Row’s clasping gear. It appears – it feels – as though he has uncommonly massive forearms; forearms with an extra dimension. One where even extraordinary physicality is only part of the bundle.
This potential for extra-curricular stature is essential to O’Connell’s appeal. As a captain – of both Lions and Ireland on occasion, remember – and as a standard-bearer leading the charge. For a man who lacks pace, he picks and goes as effectively as any Front Fiver, having a weirdly unassuming relentlessness that smacks of indomitable courage rather than extroverted heart. Again and again, O’Connell leads; again and again – whether in the lineout or into contact – he is present. Such is the rather wonderful and possibly anti-heroic nature of his contribution.
Being myself mercifully six or seven inches shy of the typical Second Row’s elevation I can only speak from a respectful distance of the frequency and abrasiveness of the clashes of these titans. O’Connell has had his share. But what strikes me generally of the man – in particular the later vintage (Limerick)Munsterman – is the degree of control he retains whilst either being, or being in, a tide of hyper-conflict. The temptation towards devilry when confronted by the likes of … name your most feared or revered international 4 or 5 (Botha?)… has been known to be challenging to the point of decisive – particularly in the modern era – where yellow cards for cynicism, slackness or raw violence do occur.
Paul O’Connell, though I suspect not remotely fazed by the thought of succeeding Brian O’Driscoll as captain of Ireland, is nevertheless succeeding a man who by common appreciation is one of the greats of the game. O’Connell is not, he will know, quite in that highest echelon – though this is certainly partly a matter of differences in gearing.
O’Connell epitomizes that low-diff grungy but rangy Land Rover thing whereas BOD has the possibility for thrilling, fuel-injected glory. The Lock, who I am tempted to burden with the BOFG moniker (Big Occasionally Friendly Giant) will never electrify us; 4 and 5 don’t do that stuff. He will however make us roar, us Lions fans, with an imperious catch and subsequent drive, or a low-slung but vital scurry for yardage as a 10 waits dry-lipped for a drop attempt.
In addition, the aforementioned catch/drive/scurry is likely to be repeated with an efficiency destined surely to grind down or erode the confidence of the opposition. Thus O’Connell executes.
O’Driscoll and O’Connell; two good Irishmen and true who unquestionably share a capacity to absorb or inflict pain for the cause. As a result they’ve shared injuries and the breaks in continuity they bring. But such is the influence both exert that they tend to feature pretty much immediately upon teamsheets at every level, right up to those conferring preciously regarded Lionhood.
As the one (BOD) steps away from some of these privileges, few would question that Paul O’Connell – magnificently armed specimen that he appears – is entirely equipped to be a worthy successor, captain or not. And that brilliant, thunder-stealing but short-arsed centre cannot, in all likelihood rob him of one particular accolade – that of being the B.O.F.G.