It’s seven years ago now but people just won’t let Paul O’Connell leave it behind.
The first ever game of rugby (or soccer) at Croke Park, France await and the Ireland lock is fit to explode. Luckily, a camera crew is on hand to capture the tension and anticipation bottled up in the dressing-room underneath the Hogan Stand.
“Listen to me now,” O’Connell says. “Listen to me. I want them to stand back thinking ‘what the fuck is going on here?’ Not for the first five minutes, for the entire game. Fucking manic aggression. Do you scare anyone? Do you put the fear of God into anyone?”
The point remains valid, he insisted yesterday. The English side Stuart Lancaster will trust to do battle tomorrow will be big, athletic and powerful. For all the science, tactics and mental prep, rugby remains a sport where might is right.
But, that video?
“It’s embarrassing really and the dressing rooms are less like that now,” he said, a smile creasing his face.
“Dressing rooms are a lot quieter now. The way rugby is gone, a lot of it is about looking after your own job.
“You make sure you prepare to the best of your ability. You look after your own job as physically as you can and with as much intensity as you can. Back then, there was a certain leadership group that had to prepare the team and drive on the team. That has faded a little bit.”
O’Connell and Ireland travel hardened by the defeats of Scotland and Wales, with a level of experience in their ranks that England can’t match and in the knowledge that they have yet to empty their full bag of tricks.
But this is Twickenham. O’Connell hasn’t played there since the 20-16 win in 2010. That was the last time Ireland beat England and O’Connell has yet to smell the red rose up close since it began to flower again under the tender care of Stuart Lancaster.
All he has to go on are those memories but most of them good ones.
“It’s incredibly difficult. I was lucky to win a few earlier on in my career. England were very much a team in transition at that time after the World Cup. They had gone to the World Cup with a very experienced and older squad and then following that the leadership group that took them forward spent a long time injured. The likes of Moody, Tindall, Wilkinson who probably didn’t play a whole lot.
“Whenever we have won there they have been incredibly tight games. If memory serves me I remember Shane Horgan scoring late to win one game and Tommy Bowe scoring late to win another. It doesn’t matter what England team you play it is always incredibly physical. All across the pitch — up front and in the backs.”
Twickenham, then, is the proverbial game of inches and nobody has epitomised that approach as much as O’Connell and his twin totem Brian O’Driscoll who, with his Lions caps taken in tow, will match George Gregan’s record of 139 Test appearances at the home of rugby this weekend.
Under such circumstances it would have been rude not to ask his skipper tomorrow to share some thoughts.
“From an Irish point of view, he’s spread confidence across the whole set-up. Brian has been playing for Ireland since I’ve been involved. I grew up watching Ireland in the 90s, and maybe that confidence wasn’t there in the Irish team, but any team that takes the field with Brian in it always feels they have a chance of winning.
“You see that confidence now spread across the provinces. You see guys like Johnny Sexton that have watched Brian and learned under Brian and they kinda realise this is how you need to play the game. You need to be the complete player.
“There’s a lot of people who have come through now who are almost in the mould of Brian in the way he’s carried himself. When Brian is finished that confidence will remain in the Irish squad because a few players have moulded themselves on him a little bit and have seen this is what you need to be to be the all-round rugby player.”
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