February, 2009. I'm in one of the finest pubs in the world, having a quiet pint watching Villa play someone I don't remember. That's not important.
The football finishes and next up is a Munster game so we decide to keep our seats in front of the big screen and watch the game.
Just before the game starts, some huge bloke walks in with his proportionately tiny missus and takes up position between us and the screen. Having paper-scissor-stoned it as to who was going to have to tell Huge Bloke to get out of the way, I found myself reaching up on tiptoes and knocking on the bricks he used in place of a shoulder. "Mate, would you mind? We can't see the screen."
Preparing myself for some intimidating reply to which I would surely respond by offering him our seats and perhaps a pint for him and a fruit-based drink for his lady friend, he quietly responded with a "Sure, sorry about that" before squashing himself against the wall for the duration of the match.
At some point, my mate leans across to me: "I think that's Paul O'Connell [Munster and Ireland second row] and you've just asked him to get out of the way of watching his own team play." Shit.
At the end of the game, I go up to O'Connell to apologize and he's very gracious in his reply. I ask if we can get a photo and he's ok with this and puts his arm round me. With the Blue Oyster Club music ringing in my ears, I return the compliment in what can only be described as a man-cuddle and my mate takes my phone to take a photo. Job done, I swap places with my mate and - slightly jealously, as I thought Paul liked me best - I take a photo of them embracing.
Heading out into the cold air, we review the photos and discover that neither of us had actually pressed the camera button hard enough and neither of us had actually taken a photo. Nor had any proof of our meeting.
This is a mock-up of what the photo would probably have looked like. Paul is such a man-mountain that he makes the 6'2 man he is holding look like a mere child*.
Anyway, from that moment on, he has become a close personal friend and we hold a mutual respect for each other. I watch him on TV and he goes on TV so that I can watch. We don't call, text or make any form of contact but I think that's best; we are holding on to that one moment we spent together and know that it cannot be repeated.
Paul O'Connell: close personal friend and hero.
*just so as I am not offending anyone, this is actually a photo of Paul and his son, Paddy. I'll take it down if you don't like it, Paul, but that would mean that you have to get in touch which would break our mutual unspoken promise. Your call.