18 May, 11:09
IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne has issued a statement following confirmation of Ronan O'Gara's decision to retire from playing professional rugby.
Paul O'Connell has come a long way. Stories about his first and last encounters with Biarritz Olympique illustrate this.
In January 2001, the second row, then an unheralded player on only a part-time Munster contract, passed on his ticket for the sell-out quarter-final match to his father. O'Connell, along with some friends, made do with jumping the wall that day at Thomond Park to see the action for free.
It was fun, but more than five years later that wall-jumping caper was long forgotten. O'Connell was instead at the heart of the action against Biarritz, pack leader in Cardiff as the province finally
fulfilled its destiny by winning the Heineken Cup. It was a gripping finale, an occasion that will linger in the memory for generations to come.
However, it's in the past. Only the here and now matters to O'Connell, especially as he has become the captain charged with repeating the trophy-lifting feat of Anthony Foley. He claims the honour of leading the side's title defence is massive, recognition enhanced by the grandeur of the footsteps he is following in.
"Gallimh [Mick Galwey], Jim [Williams], Axel [Foley] - they're three outstanding captains, three real leaders," says O'Connell.
But securing repeat success in Europe is no easy task. Only current pool opponents Leicester Tigers have done it, following their 2001 win over Stade Francais with that much-debated triumph over Munster 12 months later.
For others there's been hard luck. Brive's attempt at back-to-back titles was shattered by their one-point loss to Bath in 1998's decider while Toulouse's were also pipped in the dying seconds, by Wasps in 2004.
Now Munster are chasing the double, but club rugby's glamour competition isn't the only tournament O'Connell has targeted.
"We've been very poor in recent seasons in the Celtic League and that's the one that tests your consistency over a longer period. You're not just getting up for one-off games. The Magners League is about consistency week in, week out. It's about mental strength and we've been poor in that.
"The Heineken Cup was the priority - and it was always going to be until we won it. But now that we've won it, you have to reassess your goals and your priorities.
"Not just me, the whole team. When some guys are growing up their goal is to play for Ireland and then when they're capped for Ireland their goals change, and it's the same with us in Munster.
"Our goal was to win the Heineken Cup and now we've done it our goals change. You look at retaining it, you look at winning the Magners League and the Heineken Cup in the same year. That's the way it kind of evolves and you have to keep raising your standards, otherwise you go back and the province will go back as well."
...O'Connell taking on the All Blacks defence during the summer tour...
O'Connell first began raising standards when he debuted for Munster as a replacement against
Harlequins at the Stoop five years ago, and his reputation-building since then has been wonderfully impressive. So much so that the gag doing the rounds is that Superman wears Paul O'Connell pyjamas.
"It's a bit of a laugh alright but that's how bananas things went around the Heineken Cup final. I never thought it would go that crazy. I never realised how much people were buying into it."
O'Connell even mischievously played his own part in generating the mayhem, saying on television following the semi-final win over Leinster that all Munster supporters were invited to the celebrations that night in Jerry Flannery's Limerick pub. Cue bedlam. The team's supporters took O'Connell at his word and the pub was thronged.
"I don't have enough money to pay for what he did that night," said Flannery. "It was brilliant what he did, I'm very grateful for it."
O'Connell has since summered well. He holidayed in Italy and Portugal. He got back to playing golf, getting his handicap down to seven. And he also greatly enjoyed the team day outs that were the weddings of David Wallace, Ronan O'Gara and Frankie Sheahan.
But while it can be suggested that the lock is experiencing the time of his life, he cautions he is still 'a long way off' the peak in his rugby career. In other words, there's no way he will happily settle for one Heineken Cup win and a pair of Ireland Triple Crown victories. He wants more than that.
"I've a load of things to improve on, and Munster and Ireland have a load of things to achieve. I've only won a Heineken Cup. There wasn't a trophy for the Triple Crown before this year so the
Triple Crown was great, but we need to look at Grand Slams and championships. We need to look at doing something special at the World Cup. That's when you start thinking 'we really are in a great era in Irish rugby.' We have the talent but we need to start making it happen.
"No one remembers individuals. It's what teams do that get remembered. You look at the Grand Slam team of 1948, we know the team. I don't know many of the players on it but I know the team. 1985, the team that won the Triple Crown - you know the team. The Munster team that beat the All Blacks ... it's all about the team and we need to start achieving as teams."
**Interview by Liam Heagney - This article appeared in "In Touch" - The Official IRFU Magazine in association with O2 - which was free with the Irish Independent on Monday, October 23**