The Ireland captain is a reluctant hero at the best of times but taking the applause after his final Test on home soil at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday left him squirming more than a little as it followed a deeply disappointing performance.
Ireland have one game left before the World Cup in which to eradicate the disciplinary and accuracy issues which saw them concede 15 penalties to the Welsh in a deserved 16-10 defeat at the weekend and the fact that it will come this Saturday against England at Twickenham makes the need to improve all the more acute.
Failure to do so, moreover, will leave Joe Schmidt’s side to head into the Pool D campaign opener with Canada on September 19 very much at a low ebb and vulnerable to further exposure come the business end of the tournament, O’Connell warned starkly.
“Victory is always important. That underpins everything that we do but I think there’s a certain number of things that we wanted to improve on from the Scotland game which we didn’t do and that’s disappointing and I’ve no doubt we’re going to be reminded heavily about those things again heading into England,” the captain said.
“I think when we get a certain amount of things right in our game it always puts us in a good place late on in the game to win a match. But until we start putting those things in place we don’t stand a chance of winning, especially those big games against big strong teams. We’re away from home at Twickenham so there’s a whole load of building blocks we need to get right first.
“Hopefully victory can come from that.” It should have been an afternoon to celebrate the icon that O’Connell, 35, has become to Irish rugby over 103 Test appearances and for the 47,000-plus supporters inside the Aviva it remained that way regardless of the performance, his trek back out onto the playing surface being greeted with a tremendous reception.
“It was very nice, embarrassing a little bit when you’ve lost the game and it’s your first hit out as well,” he said.
“I certainly felt a little bit rusty and it’s hard to play as well as you’d like to when it’s your first start. So I really appreciated it. Even when I came out for the warm-up and my name was announced, I really appreciated it and at the end. I was a little bit embarrassed - you’ve lost the game, it’s not nice to have to walk to the middle of the pitch and wave to the crowd and that’s the disappointing part.
“But I really appreciate the reception. I love playing here in Dublin and it’s a great city. I think Lansdowne Road is an incredible place, or the Aviva as it’s now called. I’m really disappointed with the result now but hopefully in a few months I’ll look back on it as a really nice occasion.”
Ireland’s performance will not be chief among O’Connell’s cherished memories of the day and even though his side had a chance to snatch victory in the last play of the game, only for Sean Cronin to be held up under the posts by resolute Welsh defenders, the Toulon-bound Munster legend knew the disallowed try was not the only difference separating the two sides.
“The penalty count is a big thing. Wales are a big side and we gave them a good few cracks at us on a five-metre drive. We gave Leigh Halfpenny a lot of kicks at goal and we gave them 50 or 60 metres as well. Some of the penalties were tough and difficult to take but at the same time you can’t blame that on a 15-6 penalty count. There’s no doubt it’s disappointing.
“There’s certain things we pride ourselves on, build ourselves on and we didn’t do a whole lot of those very well today, discipline being one of them.
“Just giving teams repeated cracks at you, either through maul or goal-kicking or conceding 50 metres up the field through penalties is a very tough way to play the game and a very difficult way to win games.”