Scrum Sevens
The seven stages of Ireland's towering inferno
Huw Richards
March 11, 2015
Paul O'Connell will join an elite band of players this weekend © Getty Images

On a big weekend for Irish rugby and cricket, one man in green is already guaranteed a century. Paul O'Connell, Limerick's favourite towering inferno, will become the fourth man to win 100 caps for Ireland when he leads his team out at the Millennium Stadium in pursuit of fresh honours to add to a career which already boasts so many highlights that our tribute Scrum Sevens had to leave out one of the two Heineken wins.

2002 - Ireland v Wales

© Getty Images

The greatest journey begins with a single step, or in this case an elbow belonging to Craig Quinnell, larger of the two very large brothers in the Welsh pack. Colliding with it meant that O'Connell, making his international debut at 22 less than a year after his first appearance for Munster, remembers very little of what should have been a memorable occasion and nothing at all of his most striking contribution - winning a line-out then crossing Wales's line after only 24 minutes for Ireland's third try of what proved to be a 50-point massacre. Still dazed, he was replaced by Gary Longwell before half-time.

2004 - England v Ireland

England were reigning world champions and hadn't lost to Ireland at Twickenham for a decade, but this was the day when their hooker Steve Thompson, in his own colourful phrase, 'couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo'. He could hit O'Connell and did, lots. Ireland won 11 England line-outs plus 20 of their own on the way to a win more comprehensive than a 19-13 score suggested. Ireland had already spotted O'Connell's qualities, making him stand-in captain earlier in the same campaign, but this was the day that launched a dominance of the other home nations which brought four Triple Crowns in six years and offered a rapid, conclusive-for-a-decade-and-counting answer to the question of who would succeed the just-retired Martin Johnson as the outstanding lock among the Lions-eligible.

2008 - Munster v Toulouse

O'Connell is as much a local as a national hero and his Munster exploits are as important to that awesome rugby CV as his achievements for Ireland. If the Heineken was the making of the Irish province, the reverse is also true and O'Connell played his full part in the long-unrequited pursuit of the title which gave the Heineken its great defining narrative. They got there in 2006, but the 2008 final was the one which ended with O'Connell receiving the Heineken Cup as captain. He played his usual part on the field as well, coordinating the forward-led garrotting of opponents Toulouse and with ball in hand leading a series of smashing drives to their line which created the decisive try for number eight Dennis Leamy.

2009 - Wales v Ireland

If happy memories are any guide, the Millennium Stadium should be among O'Connell's favourites and a propitious venue for his 100th Irish cap. Following on from those two Heinekens came this cliffhanger, clinching Ireland's second ever Grand Slam and their first since 1948, the final lines in the script written first by Ronan O'Gara's 78th minute drop-goal then Stephen Jones's penalty miss. O'Connell played his usual, vital part, taking his own line-out ball with consummate efficiency and stealing a fair amount of Wales's (a line that could be written about most of his appearances against the Welsh).

2009 - British & Irish Lions captain

British & Irish Lions' captain Paul O'Connell leads out his side against the Cheetahs, Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein, South africa, June 2009
© Getty Images

A month after the Slam, and a moment widely foreseen and welcomed which said much about O'Connell's standing in the game. He was not, and never had been at this time, an incumbent national captain. Yet he was a nailed-on member of the test XV with captaincy experience from Munster and the bonus, given the Lions propensity for selecting dominant second rows for their excursions to South Africa, of being a lock. This Lions XV did not win the series. But it says much about O'Connell and his coach Ian McGeechan that, unlike many other losing Lions parties, it remained broadly happy, united and with sufficient spirit to take the final test.

2013 - Harlequins v Munster

When you are 33 and have missed the most recent Six Nations, and a fair bit of the previous one, with injuries people start to ask if you are reaching the end of the road. Or at least they did of O'Connell until he and Munster pitched up at Twickenham Stoop for this Heineken Cup quarter-final. Quins were top seeded from the pool stages, but ran into the identikit Munster road display - defiant, street-wise and bloody-minded, built around the big guy in the second row with the receding red hair. Only one team was ever going to win that sort of arm wrestle, and with Lions coaches watching nor was there any further doubt as to whether O'Connell would be on the plane to Australia a few weeks later.

2014 - Ireland v South Africa

He had been captain a fair bit before - there were the Lions, Munster and 16 times before for Ireland, including last summer's tour to Argentina. But this was the first time he led Ireland out in Dublin as his team, not as somebody else's stand-in. The wonder is, even allowing for the stature of Brian O'Driscoll, that it took so long. The Boks had just beaten the All Blacks, but they didn't have nearly enough to cope with the Irish and in particularly a pack in which O'Connell at 35 continues to show that if you are good enough, you're young enough. We're still waiting for him to show any different, or lose a match as Ireland's chosen leader.

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