Selling tickets for Test matches in August is an uphill climb, so two factors have come to the rescue of the IRFU this week: Wales are hot to trot in search of a performance that squares away what happened in the Millennium Stadium three weeks ago; and Paul O’Connell will be playing his last game for Ireland in the Aviva Stadium.
For the locals, the latter is a bit more important. The Ireland captain leaves for Toulon after the World Cup. In fairness to him, the gap between announcing that decision and playing his last Test in Ireland is not something that developed into a soap opera. “There seems to have been a lot of final everythings for me in the last while: final game in Thomond Park; final game for Munster; and I suppose it just drags on a little bit,” he said. “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 [of the Guinness series] so it’s more about where I’m going to be in terms of my play and my fitness. That’s where my mind is at the moment. I’ve had a good pre-season but it’s still been two and half months since a game [start] and I’m eager to get out there and see where I am and put in a good performance rather than dragging on a long goodbye.”
On the performance front Ireland have one very good one and one mediocre one – against Wales and Scotland respectively – while Wales, with a shorter run-in, need to look good now. “I know that Wales would have been really disappointed with their performance in the first game and they’ll be way further down the track in terms of what their plan was from a conditioning point of view,” O’Connell said. “And it’s very much a different team.”
One of the big differences will be the presence of O’Connell’s lineout partner from the Lions tour two summers ago, Alun Wyn Jones. “They did really well in the lineout against us in Cardiff this year [Six Nations] where we lost four lineouts: a five-metre drive where we’ve been fairly successful in recent years; we lost a five-metre exit lineout which was vital, where they scored subsequently. So do I enjoy it? I probably do but there is a lot of work and thought goes into it and I think he’s [Jones] got a lot better as the years have gone by. I thought we really struggled against them so that’s something we’ll have to put right.” At this late stage in his career however there is one thing he won’t be able to correct: his status in the squad of fashion criminal.
“It’s funny – it’s constant abuse,” he said. “I used to do it to John Hayes and I never thought I’d be that guy who was getting slagged about my taste in music, my taste in clothes and everything like that. If I could take those times back when I used to slag him I would now because I’m constantly on the back foot from all the lads. But it’s good fun. I get on great with them. I enjoy the training and matches more than ever. There’s still stress and pressure that goes with them, but I think I handle it better than ever.”