Ireland begin their Six Nations campaign away to Italy on Saturday on the back of a poor autumnal campaign and shorn of key personnel. Against that backdrop, and diminished expectations, the big second row references history as a counter argument to those peddling doom and gloom statements.
O’Connell explained: “We’re in a very similar situation to where we were in 2009, we just need to build momentum. We have a big physical battle away to Italy first up, and the loss of two of our most physically dominant players — Jamie (Heaslip) and Stephen (Ferris) — isn’t going to help that cause.”
A complex injury problem meant O’Connell spent most of the 2010 rugby season on the outside looking in. Such woes are now in the rear view mirror as his focus turns to the weeks — and months — ahead in this World Cup year.
He admitted: “It was horrible sitting on the sidelines for the big games, as I was for the end of last season, for the summer tours, the Autumn Internationals, the big Heineken Cup games early in the year. It was really tough, and it would have been a hammer-blow if I’d missed the Six Nations as well.
“I count myself lucky to have had the last two Heineken Cup games under the belt, against Toulon and London Irish, that will give me some bit of match conditioning going into the Six Nations. There’s a massive buzz in Ireland around the Six Nations, it’s the one we all want to be involved in.
“Obviously there’s even more interest this year, it being a World Cup year, and everyone is massively up for that, but the World Cup only comes around once every four years — the Six Nations is with us every year, it’s the bread and butter for the European international players. It’s a great five or six weeks of rugby.”
Makes you wonder — on the eve of another Six Nations campaign, how does Paul O’Connell feel?
“It’s a challenge,” is all he’ll allow, “But it’s what we’re used to. We’ve never had it any different — well I certainly haven’t. I’m sure if we came from a GAA-style season where everything built towards the same thing every year, the championship, we’d all be complaining, saying it’s a very awkward way of doing things, but since I’ve been professional this is the way we’ve always done it, and we’re well used to going from Magners to Heineken to Autumn Internationals to Magners to Heineken to Six Nations to Magners and now to World Cup this year. That’s just the way it is, that’s how it’s been since the professional era — it’s not ideal but you’ve just got to get on with it.
“Since I started in rugby — there’s no game now that isn’t a big game. The Magners League has a top four and every game is big, the domestic games especially have become massive; the Heineken Cup games are all huge; every international is a big game. Every game you play there are people’s jobs on the line. Rugby isn’t the kind of game where you can just stroll out onto the pitch and play away — you’ve got to be right physically and mentally. You’re heading into a huge physical battle and if you’re not mentally prepared for that, you can get injured, you can get blown away, you can end up losing that battle very badly. In both mind and body the professional game is tough on players — you’ve got to be right.”
Adding to O’Connell’s sense of optimism about the season to come is the new line of talent rolling off the provincial production line — Cian Healy and Seán O’Brien in the pack, for example.
O’Connell said: “They are already at an excellent standard as provincial and international players but when you look at their age profile, it’s incredible to think how good they can become.
“They have all the physical attributes, and when you add that to the experience they’re going to get over the next few years, playing with better players, playing against better players, how much better can they become?
“Propping is something where you do get better with practice, and Cian Healy is still so young, yet the way he’s fighting his corner at the moment is impressive — he’ll get better and better with time.”
It’s no accident, however, says O’Connell rather, the result of good planning by the IRFU.
“All these guys coming out of the Academies now, in Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht, are just so far ahead of where we were at the same age, at 18, 19, 20. They are starting their professional careers from a great physical base whereas in my time, when we were starting we had a lot of catching up to do, physically. These guys are already all there before they’re 20, a great position to be in.”