A nation will shed one giant tear come October when Paul O’Connell peels off an Ireland jersey for the last time, but the legendary lock is refusing to engage in the emotional build-up ahead of the Rugby World Cup that will bring the curtain down on his international career.
O’Connell’s worth has never been underestimated, with Munster or the national team, but his continued importance to the latest assault on the global event was only franked further last night when he was confirmed as the 2015 Guinness Rugby Writers Player of the Year.
It was an award that also highlighted the sheer breadth of O’Connell’s excellence in those two iconic jerseys given it was way back in 2006 when he received the accolade for the first time.
Most careers don’t last nine years, let alone at such elevated levels of performance.
The vote this time was practically superfluous after a Six Nations campaign, in particular, in which he performed heroically across five games and one which culminated with him contributing a try for the seventh time in the Test environment against Saturday’s opponents Scotland.
“I won my 100th cap against Wales (in last season’s Six Nations) and there was a lot of talk about it. It becomes hard to avoid because you get a lot of text messages about it and things like that,” said the 35-year-old ahead of the award ceremony at the Guinness Storehouse last night.
“It is a distraction. You’re under enough pressure as it is when you’re preparing for a game in terms of what you need to learn, what you need to do, where you need to be physically and mentally.
“The end of my time playing is… I wouldn’t say it’s irrelevant to me, but (thinking about it) isn’t going to help my performance.
“I’m in a very good place mentally and physically and I don’t want to change anything.”
No surprise there.
O’Connell brought months of uncertainty to a close when he signed on the dotted line for Toulon in June and his exceptional form of late — even by his lofty standards — is no mystery, given a glimpse at his last handful of seasons.
He feels “great” physically: the product in no small part of this being his third straight pre-season after too many summers that were sprinkled with injury or related matters and recent time spent locked away in camp has meant no kids and no interrupted sleep patterns.
This will be his fourth World Cup so he knows what works for him now in this warm-up phase and what doesn’t, but there has been no concessions to his senior status. He hasn’t missed a training session or stepped out of a drill “to rest my bones” at any point yet.
He is ready. Primed.
So, too, Ireland if the last two Six Nations campaigns and, more recently, Saturday’s warm-up win against Wales in Cardiff are anything to go by. Optimism is at Alpine levels to match the team’s historically high elevation to second place in the official world rankings. That said, O’Connell feels like we have all been here before: In 2007, when the strongest and fittest ever Irish team folded like a pancake on the shores of France.
That build-up to 2011 was the most enjoyable O’Connell has ever known to the great gathering and it still ended limply, so it was with a wary stance that he tackled the suggestion that, for Ireland to win the World Cup, they will have to ‘do a Grand Slam’ from the Italy pool game onwards.
“At the moment though there’s no value in thinking that far ahead for us,” he said. “The way you’ve described it, there’s no value in us looking ahead like that. The way we’ve worked in the last two-and-a-half years is being very short term focused. Obviously the coaching staff sit down and plan the long-term and we’re consulted along the way, but by and large the players’ job is to prepare for what’s straight ahead and we’ve been successful doing that. So there’s no reason to veer away from that.”
Again, the 2007 debacle is proving of some worth here. O’Connell and other players then and now admit the group got sucked into the vortex of the moment eight years ago when they openly declared their ambition to scale Everest before getting marooned on the first inconsequential hillock.
Living in the now is the latest mantra and, though O’Connell is one of the ‘Untouchables’ in Joe Schmidt’s squad, he isn’t oblivious to the effect that the individual and collective performances against Wales at the weekend will have on a squad where competition for places is so intense.
“We talk about pressure. It’s probably in terms of places and selection that the group has laid down a marker to the rest of the squad. This week, this preparation week before the Scottish game is going to be massive, for whatever team takes to the field.
“Results like that at this time of year are a good thing. They raise the bar. They put the onus now on the team that plays on Saturday to prepare 100% to the best of their ability to deliver in terms of accuracy, in terms of detail that the group last Saturday did.”
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