Ian McGeechan has paid tribute to Paul O’Connell and believes Ireland’s skipper could have a decisive impact in his country’s bid to win a first World Cup.
McGeechan appointed O’Connell as his skipper for the British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa in 2009 and is effusive in his praise of a man he says is ‘just an outstanding rugby person’.
O’Connell will retire from international rugby after the World Cup to join Toulon on a two-year deal but McGeechan says the 35-year-old still has one major tournament left in him before he departs the Ireland scene.
But McGeechan has also warned Ireland that they need to improve their ball-carrying if they are to win the tournament on October 31 as that is the area he feels they are lacking heading into the opening game against Canada.
“Paul is one of those players that other players want to play for and he leads by example,” said McGeechan at the launch of ITV’s World Cup coverage, for which he will be a pundit.
“He was a great Lions captain. He reminds me a lot of (England’s World Cup winning captain) Martin Johnson in his approach to players. For me he is just an outstanding rugby person.
“He is a natural leader and he puts his body on the line the whole time in trying to make sure things work.
“I have always been impressed by him which is why I approached him about that Lions captaincy.
“He’s a great competitor. He will be in there carrying, working hard, even in the games now where some of the other Irish players are a little bit off the pace at the moment.
“I would anticipate that he is going to be really important to the Irish performance as a whole but also as part of a game which has some of the other forwards taking on the big carries as well, which is the big area I think they are missing at the moment.
“The back row haven’t really been in the game as you would expect so the pressure has been on the half-backs. They will look at that kicking game but also getting the big men carrying, getting that directness back, getting on the front foot, and playing the majority of the rugby in their opponents’ half.”
And McGeechan says Ireland will miss O’Connell once he retires and believes the country will look back and realise how lucky they were the lock was in position to replace Brian O’Driscoll when the legendary centre brought down the curtain on his own international career.
“There’s no doubt Ireland will miss him when he finishes,” added McGechan.
“But I think Ireland were lucky to have Brian O’Driscoll and him together.
“There was some natural leadership in there that potentially put them in the right place at the right time.
“It was very important they could go from Brian O’Driscoll to Paul O’Connell when Brian finished.
“With Joe Schmidt there that transition was almost seen as a very natural thing, certainly in a leadership way.
“Paul has always got huge respect, not just with Irish players but players from other countries.
“When you have got that you know you’ve got a strong leader that can make a huge difference to what happens in the field.” But McGeechan believes Ireland’s tournament will be defined by their final Pool game against France in Cardiff on October 11.
The two sides are favourites to qualify from a Pool that also includes Canada, Romania and Italy but McGeechan believes topping the Group is hugely important.
The Pool D winners are likely to face Argentina in the quarter-finals but the runners-up would almost certainly have to beat the All Blacks to make the last four – and McGeechan thinks that would be a bridge too far.
“Ireland just have to beat France,” he said. “If they finish second in their Pool it becomes a tough tournament. They have got it within them to beat France and I think that is undoubtedly the key game of that group.
“If they win that game I think you can see Ireland in a semi-final.”
Meanwhile Johnny Sexton and Simon Zebo both took a full part in training with the national side yesterday.
Both were taken off ‘as a precautionary measure’ suffering from cramp in the defeat to England but Irish officials said that the pair suffered no ill effects. Conor Murray is progressing through the Return to Play protocols after suffering a blow to the head on Saturday while Rob Kearney “will do moderated training in the first part of this week” as he overcomes a leg injury sustained in the latter part of last week and forced him to miss the England game.
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