Paul O’Connell will have too much on his mind today to ponder his place in the Irish rugby pantheon as he makes his home Test farewell at Aviva Stadium. But that will suit the national team captain nicely.
The Munster, Ireland and Lions legend is due to play his last match for Ireland on home soil when the World Cup preparations for Joe Schmidt’s squad bring a formidable Wales team to Dublin.
Yet the 35-year-old, who will quit Test rugby at the end of the tournament in October and join European champions Toulon, will be all business and will not wallow in the attention coming his way.
“They are embarrassing,” O’Connell said yesterday of this latest farewell. “I mean, they’re nice; I really enjoyed my last game (for Munster) in Thomond Park against the Ospreys that day (in May), I had it to myself, almost.
“I think most players want to focus on the game and get on with the game, particularly with the way we play.
“There’s an awful lot of things to think about; there’s a lot of things we’ve got to do to play well and to fit into the system. You’re not too bothered by any of the distractions.” With just two more pre-season games before the Pool D campaign gets underway against Canada in Cardiff on September 19, the Munster icon was at pains to downplay this personal milestone, preferring to concentrate on the need for a strong performance after something of a stutter last time out as Ireland needed two late tries to see off Scotland at the Aviva a fortnight ago.
It was a game in which O’Connell made his first appearance of the summer, a 25-minute run off the bench, after which today’s first start represents another building block towards achieving full match fitness in his fourth and final World Cup.
“It’s all about this game. There seem to have been a lot of final everythings for me in the last ... final game at Thomond Park, final game for Munster ... I suppose it just sort of drags on a little bit.
“Certainly with Munster in those final few weeks, I thought about it a lot but it hasn’t really bogged me down this week.
“It’s my first start so it’s more about where I’m going to be in terms of my play and my fitness. That is where my mind is at the moment. I’ve had a good pre-season and that but it will still have been two and a half months since a game so I’m just eager to get out and see where I am and put in a good performance rather than dragging on the long goodbye.
“That side of it hasn’t been big for me this week. I know coming to the end of Munster it kind of was but this week it hasn’t been massive. I’m disappointed with some of the things I did in the Scottish game and I’m eager to correct those. It’s just about the game and getting it right. Wales would have been really disappointed by their performance in the first match (in Cardiff on August 8) and they will be way further down the track in terms of their conditioning and it’s very much a different team.” Perhaps it comes with age, the reluctance to talk nostalgically. O’Connell did offer his regret that he could not remember his first Ireland try, that too against Wales in February 2002 but that was down to a concussion. He was a young whippersnapper then in the company of grizzled veterans Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy. Today he is the father of the squad as well as its captain, and paying the price for his longevity as he prepares for his 103rd cap.
“It’s funny. Constant abuse. I use to do it to John Hayes and I never thought I’d be the guy that was getting slagged about my taste in music and my taste in clothes and everything like that.
“If I could take those times back when I used to slag John Hayes I would, because I’m constantly on the back foot from all the lads.
“But it’s good fun. I get on great with all of the lads and enjoy training and the matches more than ever. There’s still stress and pressure that goes with them but I think I handle it better and probably enjoy it more than ever.” The enthusiasm burns brighter and so does O’Connell’s appetite for the fight, however painful that first start of the season may feel this afternoon. “I feel in very good shape. I played two weeks ago in the Scottish game and it was 25 minutes so it’s a little bit different, so you never really know until you do a full 80 minutes or whatever it is, when you have those 10- or 12-second scrums, those 10-12 second mauls, where you’ve to come out of them and get across the other side of the pitch or whatever. That’s the real tes:t to be able to do that for a long period. So I feel good and I’m hoping I can get up to speed really quickly.”
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