Ireland captain Paul O’Connell marches into his fourth and final World Cup tomorrow in Cardiff. Ahead of the World Cup kick-off against Canada, the second-row legend sat down with rugby correspondent Simon Lewis to share memories of tournaments past — and offer insights into his mindset going into his final tour of duty in green.
2003 – in the Pacific Ocean at Terrigal
With the lads enjoying the Australian surf in front of the team hotel in New South Wales. Good times?
“That was great. That was at the team hotel in Terrigal. That was my first World Cup, 2003, I wasn’t a senior player. I’d gone on tour in the summer and came off in the first game against Australia. Then a lot of the guys that were assured of selection for the World Cup were sent home. I stayed on and we played Tonga and Samoa in Apia and I played well there and kind of played myself into the World Cup squad and World Cup team.
“The World Cup in Australia was a brilliant experience for me. I mean, Australia itself is an unbelievable place to tour and the management got it right as well. That was the Crowne Plaza, a hotel on the beach in a small village called Terrigal – with loads of coffee shops, restaurants and ice cream parlours, a bit like Noosa (the Queensland resort where the Lions prepared for the final Test in 2013).
“We just had a ball. Unfortunately we didn’t play as well as we would have liked. We had a great chance against Australia and, if Humps’s drop goal had gone over, things could have been different, but we didn’t play well against France [in the quarters]. We played really poorly against France. We couldn’t beat them around that time. The lads had beaten them in 2000 and 2001, I think, but we were struggling against them at that stage.
“But great memories for me. I really enjoyed it. It’s amazing how much it’s changed, looking at that picture. Looking at Woody there, he would have been a phenomenally powerful athlete, but he doesn’t look like one there.
“He always used to call himself, [Anthony] Foley and Marcus Horan ‘the shapeless men of Clare’, they’d no definition or anything. So there’s been a big change in the body sizes and shapes since then.”
2007 – where did it all go wrong... Paris?
Not so fond memories, yourself, Eddie O’Sullivan and the rest of the team after defeat in the final pool game to Argentina at Parc des Princes...
“2007 was incredibly disappointing. Personally, I probably overtrained going into it. I remember we trained really hard. We went to Spala in Poland and we got four days off. I remember me, Donners, Rog, Jerry Flannery, none of us would take the four days off, we’d train through them all. It was silly and we arrived over there and we were flat.
“I suppose, in contrast to the previous picture, we took the happy camp and the camaraderie for granted a little bit. We didn’t have the beautiful location that we had in Terrigal in 2003 or in Queenstown in 2011, unfortunately.
“I can’t remember if there was a mix-up with the hotel, but we ended up in a fairly remote hotel, which would have been great for the latter stages of the tournament but not ideal early on.
“It was just a very, very, very tough tournament where, instead of peaking, we dipped. We’d been on a steady climb coming up to that, played really well in the autumn, beat Australia in really bad conditions at Lansdowne Road, but played some great rugby. We played a great Six Nations, we only lost to France in the dying minutes if memory serves me correctly, but it was just one of those things. .”
It’s similar this time around, going to England, there’s no Terrigal or Queenstown, just Burton-on-Trent and Guildford. How do you avoid the same pitfalls and how different is this squad in terms of being able to deal with that?
“In many ways, it’s not different. You have to put all the things in place. You just can’t take all that fun and camaraderie and what that does for a team’s performance on the day of a game for granted.
“So we’re good at taking down time now, we’re good at switching off in down time. We’ve a few very nice locations where we’re staying and, hopefully, we’ll be able to get away from the bubble and enjoy ourselves a bit, but now that you make the point, there isn’t a Terrigal, there isn’t a Queenstown, so that’s something we’ll have to keep an eye on!
“I remember in that World Cup  we left three or four days before our first game, whereas for the World Cups in Australia and New Zealand you leave probably two weeks beforehand and you’ve that four- or five-day period where you’ve got to get over the jetlag, where you don’t do a whole lot of training and you end up having a night out or two [starts chuckling] to help your sleep patterns get aligned and things like that. It just generates a bit of craic and you do miss that when you play in the Northern Hemisphere.”
2011 – getting tackled by an Eagle in New Plymouth
Not an obvious picture perhaps but a challenge to the perception that playing lower-tier opposition is unproblematic. Are the hits just as hard?
“That was a really tough game and I think we mauled a lot, probably fell into the trap of not trying to show too much and I just don’t think you can do that. You need to go out and play every game and not get too far ahead of yourself. That’s one thing this squad has been quite good at, you know, we’re constantly reminded by management and we constantly remind ourselves that it’s the moment in front of us that’s all that matters.
“I remember playing that game and I think we probably had our eyes on games further ahead.”
It’s a similar situation this time, with Canada first up...
“Yes, and it is a difficult balancing act, but I do think we are better at that. We’ve a whole number of behaviours or values in the squad and one of them is winning the moment that’s right in front of you and working as hard as we can on that and not getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
2011 — at the full-time whistle, losing the quarter-final to Wales in Wellington
The celebrations begin for Wales as Ireland go out in yet another quarter-final and Mike Phillips leaps for joy. What were you thinking and, by the way, he must be the most annoying man in rugby at times like that?
“Yeah, he is, but Mike’s actually a great guy and a great player. What was going through my mind? I don’t know, really. They outsmarted us and we probably played in to their strengths a little bit. Dan Lydiate’s chop tackle and the penalties they could draw from that were something that cost us, along with a few missed tackles.
“We had come into it with a big performance against Italy and we didn’t match that big performance, so a very disappointing time; it’s a shame.
“With Wales, it’s kind of been, I don’t know exactly what the record is, but I’d imagine it’s close to 50/50 between us over the last number of years. So you go into a World Cup quarter-final with a 50/50 chance of winning and you hope you can tilt the odds in your favour. We didn’t. Mike scored a great try down the short side, Lydiate did a lot of damage with his chop tackles on our big carriers and then we fell off a few tackles and they pulled away. It was tough. We started poorly and they scored a try and then we came back and scored a try, playing really well around half time and I thought we were in control then, but they then rallied and did well to win the game.
“If you’re playing well as we were then that build-up of expectation is natural and inevitable, but it’s something you have to keep outside the group as well. When we win games or we play well there’s certain things that we do well and you can’t let the expectation of the game or the distraction of the occasion move you from those things you need to do really well. As I said about the previous photo, the way we prepare with a very short-term focus helps us do that.
“It was heartbreaking, losing that game. We were playing well, we had given ourselves a great chance but they were the better side on the day, You just have to take your beating and get on with it.”
2011 — positive World Cup vibes, Eden Park, Auckland
A memorable Irish momentt as Stephen Ferris lifts man and ball in the famous pool defeat of Australia. It’s an iconic image, Will Genia’s feet dangling there...
“We played great. We’d had a great preparation that summer and we’d had a great camp in Queenstown, where we enjoyed ourselves, relaxed and unwound.”
And no midgets died...
“No, no midgets died! Although we had a night out and it was quite a big night out and we felt that was important to do. All the hard work was done and I think in that small period in Queenstown, where we almost had a holiday together, it just all accumulated. It was a really steady performance, we put them under pressure at the scrum, we defended really well and some of our big players played really well, like Fez, Stephen Ferris had a great day; Cian Healy had a great game and it was great to finally produce a big performance against a Southern Hemisphere team in a World Cup.
“I suppose if we can play well against them every autumn, which we have been doing for quite a number of years it gives you a good chance when you go and play against them in a World Cup.
“We followed that performance with a big performance against Italy, we just didn’t follow it up against Wales, which means it was a bit of a one-off, which is a shame.
“Something we’ve had in the last couple of years is consistency. We’ve rarely been beaten by more than one score, apart from that Australia game in Joe’s first autumn [November 2013] and the next challenge is to bring that consistency into a World Cup. We don’t get too bogged down with expectations these days and I know people think it’s a way of answering questions for the paper but we do have this massive short-term focus on our preparation for the game ahead and that’s really all that matters.
“Maybe at times when we did produce a big performance like that in the past, because we didn’t know all the ingredients that went in to it as well as we should have, we weren’t always able to repeat that. I think now we know there’s certain building blocks for our performance, that it doesn’t matter how big the game is or how low in importance the game is, those blocks need to be right.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved