He strides up the stairs in the swish Limerick city hotel and heads turn as he eases into his seat. The waitress is over in a trice and soon returns with tea. The head barman comes by with a cheery 'Helllllooo Paullll', and checks that every effort is being made to make every effort for us. This is Paul O'Connell's town, everybody else just lives in it.
Christ, he'd hate that sentence. Hope he doesn't read it. A couple of years back, a newspaper photographer tried to get him to wear a Superman t-shirt for a picture to go along with an interview he was doing. He was told to come up with a new plan fairly lively. Those Paul-O'Connell-pushes-the-earth-down gags got old a long time ago and though they came from a good place, they embarrassed the hell out of him. Self-deprecation is more his style, so when he talks about the nine holes of golf he played this morning, he can't help but accentuate the negative. "Ah, the short game's gone," he smiles. "Driving and irons were alright but around the greens, I was useless."
They've been back in Ireland camp since Sunday night but today is a day off and he'll go home later to sweep up the detritus from some tiling he's had done in his house. He likes the small peace-time mundanities that fill his day before the battle cry goes up. All is calm so all can be right. You ask did they take any bets on who'd be the first in camp to stress that last year is gone now and he laughs and shakes his head.
"Nobody's really said that actually. The Six Nations is different that way. I was asked the other day how do you approach it coming in as champions and I had to think about it. The fact that it's not like any other competition means that you come to it fresh every year. Take the Heineken Cup – it finishes in May but you're back at it again with your province by the end of the summer and so there's a natural progression there. With the Six Nations, you're finished up in March and it doesn't start again until the following February. So much has happened since the last one.
"Even thinking back myself to all the Six Nations campaigns I would have played before. I don't ever remember going into a match thinking, 'God, we're playing the Six Nations champions here today.' It's a championship but essentially it's a run of five test matches. The whole tournament aspect of it isn't what it would be for, say, the Heineken Cup or the World Cup. There's no bonus points or that kind of thing so you're not calculating what's needed from day one like you are in the Heineken Cup. You're not coming home from an away win going, 'That'll be massive now in the long run when everything shakes out'. Basically, you're going out to win one game and then getting ready for the next one."
So far, so one game at a time. It's the only way they can be, though. The perpetual season is such a slog now, with competitions wending through one another like sailing ropes, that if he seriously sat down and tried to consider it in the round his eyes would pinball in their sockets. Even Desperate Dan took his cow pie one fork at a time.
The fixture list is a circus barker, turning O'Connell's head anew each time. The call of the next challenge is relentless and cold-hearted, indifferent to the small treats of human life of which he'd occasionally like to avail. The Grand Slam was a perfect for-instance. Barely three days after he'd skipped and bucked around the Millennium Stadium like a loosed colt, he was back in Munster mode. The drumbeat rumbled for the Magners and the Heineken again and just like that, their Grand Slam was as much history's business as Kyle's and Mullen's was. That it's the way it has to be doesn't stop it seeming a pity.
"We tend to move on very quickly and that was something I would have liked to have enjoyed a little bit more. You read so many interviews with old players who say they should have enjoyed their victories more than they did and I would just be wary of that happening to me. The Grand Slam was a big, big achievement and it was like we had this two-day party and you had to then focus majorly on the Heineken Cup straight away.
"It's a pity because it really was such a special thing to achieve. We'd built up so much heartache in pursuit of it and even for just that core group of players who'd been around with each other for the past six, seven years, it would have been good to gather ourselves around and enjoy it. But look, we've a great life and I'm not complaining at all. It just would have been nice to revel in it a bit more I suppose."
A pause. A smile. A shrug.
"I don't know what we would have done, mind you. Probably sat around telling each other how great we were. Maybe it was for the best."
It's bracing to think that it's just four years last weekend since the epic Sale match at Thomond Park that set him and Munster on the road to their first Heineken Cup. He turned 30 in October and did so a happy man but the 26-year-old who creased Sebastien Chabal that Saturday night was anything but fulfilled. All he had to show for a career that deserved more was a Celtic League, a Triple Crown and an encyclopaedia of hard-luck stories.
If you'd Jacob Marleyed him on four years and told him he'd have won a Grand Slam, another three Triple Crowns, two Heineken Cups and another Celtic League, he'd have taken that. If you'd informed him that he'd captain the Lions to boot, he'd have wanted to know did they win before allowing himself the satisfaction.
They didn't, of course, but it was still something special that he'll carry with him always. It was the most stress he'd felt in his life, with his duties following him around like a head cold. But he revelled in it, on and off the pitch. The 2-1 series defeat will always rankle because he knows that his side were only outplayed for one half of the six but the way they came back and won the final test especially allowed him make his peace with it all. And as a life experience, it was storybook.
"I must say from a players' point of view and getting to know guys and the whole Lions experience, I feel I can finally relate to the guys from the '70s who talk about the Lions being the ultimate thing. You read a lot of guys from the modern era talk about their Lions experiences from 1993 to 2005 and they were really, really tough slogs that fellas didn't enjoy very much. And I can see that, definitely. You're miles from home, you're with a bunch of guys who, no matter how sound they are, they're still fellas you don't know very well and it can be a strange place to find yourself at times.
"But this tour was quite old school in that we actually went out quite a bit at the start of it. The big challenge of tours in Australia and New Zealand is that all the games kick off at seven or eight at night because of TV. But because South Africa is more or less the same time zone as us, most of the games were three o'clock kick-offs. So we had all this time to spend with each other in the evenings after the games which was a big thing for us coming together. In the context of a Lions tour, that's massive because you've got to become a team some way. You've got to become teammates and not just fellas wearing the same shirt."
By the meat of the tests, they were brothers. On the Monday after the second match, they had a day in a game park organised and headed off in two buses with their hearts at their heels. They'd lost the game and the series trying to win it and the wound hadn't had time to scar over yet. They shared beers and laughs on the bus and the word around the campfire says that O'Connell took it upon himself to organise a breakaway group and get one of the buses turned around so they could head back to base for a good old-fashioned piss-up. Any truth in that at all, Paul?
"You're embarrassing me now," he laughs. "It was probably a few people's idea but yeah, I think maybe I was the one who pulled the plug and said we'd go back. I don't know, we got on the bus and had a few beers and just didn't feel like heading up to a game park for the day. So we turned around, about 15 or 16 of us and a few of the staff and went back. It was great. It probably wasn't ideal but we had a great time that day and come Wednesday we were right back into it. I think after the third test when Geech was asked what the secret to the turnaround was he said, 'A load of beer'."
By the end, the Welsh flanker Martyn Williams was saying O'Connell was the best captain he'd ever played under. And even most sections of the British press had come around by then as well. Certainly, the prospects of him taking a Ciaran Fitzgerald-style torching at their hands receded by the day although in their yen for him to transmute into Johnno 2.0, he did take some heat for not being a regular enough presence in the ear of referees.
Anyone who watched Munster's win over Northampton last weekend will know that isn't a charge that can be levelled at him these days anyway. Not that it did him a whole lot of good – indeed it's a fair bet that Romain Poitre's decision to send him for a spell in the bin in the second half wasn't unconnected to the more than occasional word he'd had with him. And we can probably take it that Poitre's assignment as referee for the Six Nations opener against Italy next Saturday is the reason behind the only time he clams up in any way during the interview. "I'll just have to stay away from the ball when we're five metres from our own line," is as much as he'll offer.
So here he sits, 30 years old and in search of more worlds to conquer. Only he could decide in the middle of the busiest summer of his life to call into his old college and see about finishing off the computer engineering course he started back in 2003. He'll get around to it, maybe not this year but sometime.
And if the rugby all ended tomorrow, he'd have done his bit and left no debt unsettled but there are a few of boxes he'd like to tick yet. In the dressing room under the Hogan Stand last February, he told Six Nations debutant Stephen Ferris that he'd never beaten France. Ever. Well, now he's never beaten them on their own patch so Saturday week in the Stade de France will be another chance. And then there's 2011 and, well, there's no point even bringing that up is there? Once bitten, and all that. Best to take the here and now for what it is, instead of tying everyone in knots over what might come to be.
"We've gotten better at managing expectation now," he says. "It's all to do with being realistic about where you are as a team and what you're capable of against whoever you're coming up against in a particular game. We got into a lovely rhythm of doing that in last year's Six Nations and so why would we change it this year?"
No reason. No reason at all.