Paul O’Connell confirms World Cup is the end of his Ireland career

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By Brendan O’Brien

Paul O’Connell has confirmed that his Ireland career will end when Joe Schmidt’s side plays its last game at the upcoming Rugby World Cup.

Over a month has passed since news emerged that the Ireland skipper was cutting short his current contract with Munster and the IRFU to sign a two-year deal with the French mega-giants, but the second row spoke publicly about the move for the first time on Tuesday afternoon.

One of three players wheeled out in Galway to unveil Ireland’s latest jersey from Canterbury, O’Connell ruled out the possibility of even being parachuted into the Ireland squad next season or beyond in the event of an injury epidemic.

“I don’t think I’ll be needed on the end of the phone,” he said. “There is great strength in depth in the second row at the moment and we probably have a few back rows who can jump in and do a job there as well. I will be at the end of the phone, but I won’t be needed and I won’t be available either.”

“I just know myself: I’m really looking forward to the World Cup, but this is going to be the end of my time for Ireland. I want to go to France and play for Toulon and I am not going to be able to do what Jonathan Sexton did last year where you play big games and have a down week.

“You saw Johnny (with Racing Metro) getting on a plane to go away and play a team like Clermont away from home. For an Irish player to try and play for Ireland, play in France and play to the best of his abilities is a very difficult thing to do.”

The former Munster and Lions captain also revealed that he would have retired with no ill feelings had the IRFU blocked his move to France by making him honour the last year of his current contract, accepting that his move to the Top 14 is not exactly in their best interests.

Sexton’s switch to Paris from Leinster two years ago raised fears of an Irish exodus to the continent – fears that proved unfounded especially with Sexton now returned to Leinster – so O’Connell was quick to thank his home province and union for their accommodating stance.

“When I spoke to them I said ‘if this is an issue I’m actually very happy to retire’. I didn’t want to cause trouble. I know this is a situation where it is going to be a battle for them holding on to players and me going to Toulon probably isn’t ideal for them. As I said earlier, I am very grateful to them for doing that.”

There was considerable light shed too on the mechanics of the move itself.

For two years O’Connell was sure he would walk away from the game after the 2015 World Cup. It was an article in the French newspaper linking him to Pau that sparked a rethink. That and the contact made by Paul Stridgeon who was S&C coach with Toulon.

The pair knew each other from their roles on past Lions tours when a friendship was formed, but O’Connell ultimately rejected the idea after Christmas having spent some time mulling it over. It was then that the first pangs of regret began to bite.

“About a month or five weeks later I got another text message that they were about to move on another player and asked again would I be interested and to let them know. I chatted with Emily (his wife) a little bit about it.

“The body at the time was feeling really good. I just said to them, ‘look I would be interested, but I can’t talk to a club while I am playing for Munster unfortunately, but if you are willing to wait until the summer I’ll certainly talk to you and look at doing something.”

Yet, it was not a case of Toulon or nowhere at all.

Had the opportunity to join the European champions passed by he would still have sought fresh foreign fields elsewhere in France. The cultural differences, far from being an obstacle, seem to appeal to him. New language, new house, new everything.

O’Connell spoke yesterday about how he bought a house ten minutes away from that of his parents as a young professional and how he has never lived anywhere else. New horizons await. “It was a great opportunity for me from a rugby point of view and a lifestyle perspective to experience something.”