Paul O'Connell: The many faces of his leadership

With insights from former team-mates, we look at the many facets of his ability to lead and inspire

Paul O'Connell, Ireland, 2009, Six Nations

Paul O'Connell in 2009 ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

If there's one fact that to some degree shows just how valued Paul O'Connell was as a leader, it's the fact that he was named Lions captain in 2009 even though he had not yet become Ireland skipper.

The latter honour did finally come in November 2013 and only felt entirely natural, but the Lions 2009 tour was the proof that his ability to lead was viewed beyond the prism of imaginary or symbolic armbands.

Ian McGeechan was the Lions coach who entrusted the Limerick man with the captaincy in 2009 and it was from watching O'Connell from afar that convinced him that it was the route to follow.

"I think sometimes it's what you see from a distance or when you're in an opposing team, being with Scotland and with Wasps at the time. You just see the impact he has on his own team as well as on an opponent. I likened him to Martin Johnson and the two of them were massive captains," McGeechan told Off The Ball on the day O'Connell's international retirement was confirmed in mid-October.

Granted McGeechan did not see this first hand:

But constant "manic aggression" cannot be sustainable as a leadership tool in the long run as many find to their cost.

O'Connell was well aware of that and as his Ireland captaincy successor Rory Best said at the London launch of the 2016 Six Nations, the Munster legend knew when to pick and choose his moments to make his voice heard around camp.

"One thing that you notice when you're in camp is that he doesn't speak all the time. It's not a constant commentary of what's going on. It's whenever something needs to be said, he'd stand up and say it and because he's so well respected, people listen. And because it's not all the time, people listen," said his long-time former team-mate.

 

But leading by example is also another part of his leadership that was arguably more important than the other aspects as it directly contributed to success on the pitch.

It was something highlighted by another formidable Irish rugby leader in Keith Wood today who played alongside his fellow South-West native at international level during O'Connell's early career.

"He was quite vocal for a young guy coming into a squad, he was very, very driven and unbelievably demanding. Which was frustrating at the very start; you're having to deal with this guy who's 6'6" and a novice in the game and yet is saying the right points at the right time without having a huge amount of experience".

Which leads onto what Brian O'Driscoll had to say. Leadership can be about rallying those around you, but it can also be about rallying yourself to a crescendo and as O'Driscoll recalls, "he drove that standard to another level all together. What set him apart was his constant need to get better every single year, year on year. Always trying to hone his own skills, his physical attributes, his diet; he was such a stickler for that".

Perfection may be impossible to attain but chasing it didn't do him any harm if you look at his trophy cabinet.