AS Donncha O’Callaghan chatted with journalists this week, he realised that payback time had arrived for Paul O’Connell’s recent comments on The Late, Late Show.
O’Connell dropped hints about O’Callaghan had been a long way behind him academically during their school days and that he indulged in modern fads such as fake tan and the like.
“All those stories are made up by O’Connell,” he said mock seriously. “He loves to divert and cause trouble and blame someone else.
“What did I think of him on the Late, Late Show? I thought he was terrible. He said some very nice things but I think everyone remembers him slagging me over my Leaving Cert and fake tan and just making up things in general.
“To be honest, that kind of stuff would be a normal day in our changing room but the only disaster is that it was in front of the whole country. It’s clear to see that Paulie’s just jealous. He has no hair, no tan, no teeth. Just look at the two of us, it’s clear to see who the better second-row is. Jeez, make that better-looking second-row or he‘ll be back on me.”
However, when it comes to playing rugby, the slagging goes out the window.
“I don’t think there would be anyone who would take their job as seriously,” says O’Callaghan. “But if I stayed tuned in to rugby the whole time, I‘d go crazy.”
O’Callaghan wins his 59th cap on Saturday and having watched the games against Italy and France from the stands, he realises that all is not right with the Irish team at present.
“Seeing the lads run out the last two times was tough when you’re wanting to go out yourself and perform,” he reflects. “I wouldn’t say I ever took it for granted but it brings home how much it means to you and how proud you are to run out with the Irish team. It is all that matters to me – it is everything.”
O’Callaghan speaks in typically generous terms about how well Leo Cullen took his chance against Italy and France.
“Leo had two super games,” he agreed. “Deccie goes on about much you need to have a good squad. You have to perform and that’s the case for me on Saturday when you look at the performances that Leo has put in.
“The standard is set and you have to push on and that’s the case throughout the team. If you can have that internal fighting for places, you don’t worry about the opposition and you’re driven on by yourself.”
England may no longer be the world champions and they have come in for some harsh criticism after the November internationals and the game against Italy. However, that doesn’t register with O’Callaghan simply because there has never been an Irish team that didn’t want to go out and knock the socks off the auld enemy.
“You can play them at any sport and you know that everybody watching wants to beat England,” he emphasises. “You might know a few of them but it’s still England in a massive game. The thing about these games is that they have been hugely physical for the last few years, they really have.
“One to eight you know you’re in for a big game and you really have to perform. Gert (Smal, Irish forwards coach) goes on about why they call them Test matches – you get really tested.
“I know we’re expected to win but we don’t look at it like that,” he said. “The biggest thing is that we go out and perform, that we play well and cut down on the individual errors we made against France.”
On a personal basis, Donncha never doubted that he’d be back to full fitness within the month prescribed by the medical team. As he puts it: “It’s like ready mix, you can’t rush it but it’s perfect now and I’m ready to go.”
Where the four week gap between his last match on January 22 and Saturday is concerned, however, there are many who cannot understand why Declan Kidney has opted to start with O’Callaghan while Leo Cullen must be satisfied with a place on the bench.
“It is a concern that you mightn’t be match hardened but I got in an incredible three weeks of training, he says. “I was lucky to fall in with Paul Pook here with Ireland and Paul Derbyshire and Aidan O’Connell in Munster who absolutely flaked me. I treated it as a kind of mini pre-season and it will stand to me.
“I got in a great week in Lanzarote with Munster. Paul had me up boxing at 7 o’clock in the morning and swimming at 7 in the evening and I realised I’m no boxer and no swimmer so I’m just glad to be back playing rugby.
“It’s not match sharpness but it’s a trade-off between being fresh and fit and maybe not being match hardened. But if there is any game you can get yourself mentally right for, this is definitely it.”
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