Leading from the front

Paul O’Connell is an inspirational captain and player for Ireland, writes GERRY THORNLEY.

As the Springboks can testify, quality locks tend to age like good wine, or at least endure longer than most. Perhaps it’s because, as the likes of Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn freely admitted, they never had much pace to lose in the first place. But at any rate, no less than Victor Matfield, Paul O’Connell remains as important as any Irish player to their hopes of a successful World Cup. 

O’Connell will turn 36 during the tournament, and there’s little doubt the best present he could receive would be knowing that Ireland have a first World Cup semi-final at their eighth attempt, later that week.

It’s remarkable to think that Ireland never achieved the feat in the four tournaments graced by their most capped and best player, Brian O’Driscoll, especially as one of his teammates in the last three was O’Connell, by popular consent Ireland’s greatest forward of all time.

But as O’Connell emulates O’Driscoll in participating in his fourth World Cup, his value as a leader as well as a player is perhaps more pronounced than ever. It’s not just his aerial skills, his carrying and his physicality; it’s his presence. 

When O’Connell produces a big play, be it a rumble into or through contact, or coming hard off the defensive line to make a big hit, it has an inspiring effect on those around him. When O’Connell plays, Ireland (and Munster) packs are invariably more cohesive, not least with their driving maul. It’s as if his seven fellow forwards are playing with their daddy. You could almost throw a blanket over them most of the time.

Having stated his intention to retire from Test rugby at the end of the World Cup, before an Indian summer to his career in Toulon, he finds the focus on him embarrassing and distracting in equal measure. 

‘I think it’s a distraction. I won my 100th cap against Wales and there was a lot of talk about it. It becomes hard to avoid because you get a lot of text messages about it and things like that,’ says O’Connell, recalling reaching the century mark away to Wales last March. It also turned out to be Ireland’s only defeat in the Six Nations, a title they retained a week later in Edinburgh to ensure they went into this World Cup with the most convincing body of work they’ve ever taken into the tournament. 

‘You’re under enough pressure as it is when you’re preparing for a game in terms of what you need to learn, what you need to do and where you need to be physically and mentally. I wouldn’t say the end of my time playing is irrelevant to me, but thinking about it isn’t going to help my performance. I’m in a very good place mentally and physically and I don’t want to change anything.’

Casting his gaze towards the Rugby Championship, with one eye on the World Cup, O’Connell clearly believes the main threats lie with those teams.

‘Some really fantastic rugby has been played and at some high intensity. They’re in a different situation to us where they’re coming off Super Rugby into Test rugby and it’s been impressive rugby, very physical, and it just shows where we have to get up to, just to be in a World Cup.

‘There is no doubt, even when you have a period off and a pre-season, that there is nothing better to sharpen your skills or your mindset than playing against southern-hemisphere sides and they are getting that big advantage.’

However, with England having home advantage, and Wales and Ireland potentially major threats on the day, O’Connell agrees with the general consensus that this is the most competitive World Cup yet.

‘There are more teams than ever that can win the World Cup, more teams that can beat each other on their day. That’s going to make it a good tournament but it’s going to make it a tough tournament.’

Asked if Ireland can win the World Cup, O’Connell sighs and says: ‘Oh God. That question. We haven’t thought about that or answered that question to anyone. We just stay focused on the short term. We think only good things can come from having a real short-term focus on our preparation and taking these matches really, really seriously and not looking too far beyond them. That’s probably not the answer you want but that’s how we are preparing and living, week to week, and that’s how it works for us.’

O’Connell’s Munster edge has combined with the more cerebral approach of coach Joe Schmidt, and such is the detailed preparation for training and games, especially under Schmidt, that the Irish captain says rugby is almost a different sport now, compared to when he won the first of his 103 caps in a try-scoring debut at home to Wales in 2002.

The player has recovered from a number of significant injuries to enjoy three relatively untroubled seasons in a row, although he admits his body has had to adapt to the changing demands of the sport.

‘I have to train a certain way. I look at what some of the guys do in the gym. I’d love to be able to do the same but unfortunately, I can’t.

‘I wish I’d been more clever in terms of how I trained in those earlier days. I am very competitive with other people in the gym, which for a tall man sometimes can be a little bit dangerous.

‘My only regret would be those injuries that probably didn’t need to happen. I haven’t always done the right thing. But, I’ve always tried to do the right thing in how I’ve trained and prepared and played.’

– This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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