Paul O’Connell: I don’t think Ireland have played to their potential in the World Cup

Ireland captain is concentrating on the Six Nations opener in Italy but his green dream is to go down in history as a member of the second northern hemisphere side to rule the world

This is a moment to pause, a stretch of calm before battle, and Paul O’Connell is serene. He is about to enter a nine-month period that could seal a majestic career and, looking ahead to a defining series of matches in the Six Nations, Ireland’s captain is in a relaxed mood. There is a striking difference between the imposing giant in green, dominating the lineout and carrying a mighty force in every run and tackle, and the softly spoken, twinkling O’Connell in conversation. He is one of the greats of European rugby but O’Connell has a light touch off the field.

The 35-year-old, who has played 96 times for Ireland and in seven Tests for the Lions, also knows too much about rugby to make any grand predictions. And so it is striking that O’Connell allows himself to break away from his squad’s mantra of concentrating only on their first game as the defending Six Nations champions, against Italy in Rome on Saturday, to anticipate an even more important tournament – and a beguiling dream.

“Yeah,” O’Connell says with an emphatic nod, “if you can lift the World Cup you will go down in history. Look at the English team that won it in 2003 – the only northern hemisphere nation to have ever done that. Those guys are legends. It would be great to fulfil our potential and play to the best of our ability in this year’s World Cup.”

Robert Kitson on Ireland’s chances.

Ireland are building an impressive momentum. They came agonisingly close to defeating New Zealand for the first time in November 2013, having been 19‑0 ahead before going down in the final seconds, and lost just one match the whole of last year. England won narrowly at Twickenham but Ireland still secured the Six Nations title and showed composure and resolve to overcome South Africa and Australia in the autumn. They are ranked the third best team in the world and even if England have home advantage, Ireland could be the northern hemisphere’s best hope in the World Cup.

O’Connell takes a moment to consider his answer when asked if he also believes Ireland are potential winners of the tournament. “For Ireland to win a World Cup you need a load of things to go your way,” he says. “You need luck with injuries because we don’t have the playing numbers of other countries. But Ireland certainly have a chance of winning the World Cup. You don’t go out and play unless you believe that.

“It’s an outside chance because you look at New Zealand and the way they can pull games out of the fire – or the way they can put teams away very quickly. If you give them any opportunity they’ll take it. You look at South Africa and their size and strength – and then you look at Australia and the way they played against us for those 25 minutes before half-time [when recovering from a 17-0 deficit to draw level before Ireland won 26-23. They’re incredible sides. But, when we get a few things right, and we have some luck, we can live with those teams.

“The way we’ve performed in the last 18 months makes me think that, at our best, we’d certainly have a chance against them. That sharpens our preparation because we know how good we have to be against them. We have to really perform to the best of our ability whereas other countries probably have the luxury of not always being at their best and still winning.”

O’Connell describes World Cups and Lions tours as “forever moments” – in the sense they are the most significant matches for a player from the northern hemisphere. He has captained the Lions, and also been part of a winning series, but the World Cup is a more hurtful arena for him.

“It may sound negative but I don’t think we’ve ever played to our potential at the World Cup. Even in 2011, when we played some great rugby and beat Australia, it ended painfully. The Wales game [in the quarter-finals] was really disappointing. They were excellent but we played into their hands. It was the same in 2003 [when Ireland lost again in the quarters to France]. We never played to the best of our ability.

“It has been more disappointing than fulfilling – and 2007 would probably be, God, a period in my career I’ll never forget or really be able to explain [as Ireland were knocked out in the pool stages]. We’re a lot more consistent now – and I don’t think we’ll be distracted by the bigger picture. Being number three in the world seven years ago was probably a big deal. This time round we’ve learnt it’s largely irrelevant.”

The Six Nations, as compellingly unpredictable as ever, comes first and O’Connell stresses Ireland’s focused preparation has been drilled into them by their coach, Joe Schmidt. An astute and methodical New Zealander whose strategic planning is matched by his emotional intelligence, Schmidt has been in charge since September 2013 and Ireland have been transformed from a team who, earlier that year, finished the Six Nations in fifth place.

“Joe is big on getting better week by week, game on game, championship after championship,” O’Connell says. “He’s very process-orientated. We came into camp for a few days over Christmas and you’re expecting a review of the autumn and a preview of the year ahead. But we just got a plan for Italy. That was his way of saying: ‘If you’re involved with Ireland now, don’t look beyond the next game.’ That message has been stamped in the players’ minds. I know it’s a cliche but it’s good for us.”

When Schmidt arrived, O’Connell admits it was difficult to adjust to his intricate gameplans. “You’re asked to do a lot of very different things. There is a lot of detail in terms of the plays and how we execute them. So, initially, for your first few games, you’re thinking a lot on the pitch. And rugby is a game where you have to be physical and aggressive and it’s hard to do that if you’re thinking too much. But once these things become second nature, and you’re doing them subconsciously, you start executing them with more aggression, physicality and speed.

“Joe is a brilliant communicator and he’s very good at making complicated plays really easy to execute. It needs to be explained well and simply and you need a coach who can let you know you need to do this – or else – without creating a negative vibe.”

Schmidt and O’Connell are similar in their ability to exude authority while remaining understated. Their combination has helped lift Ireland to new heights and they were deserved Six Nations winners last year. The final match, a narrow victory in Paris, coincided with Brian O’Driscoll’s last Test. There was something inspiring and moving in the way the two old masters walked slowly around the Stade de France at the end as the rest of the Ireland squad gamboled ahead.

“Look,” O’Connell says with a wry smile, “you get to pick up very few trophies. I consider myself to have had a relatively successful career but there have been some barren years. When you pick up a trophy you want to enjoy that lap of honour and pick out the faces in the crowd. When you’re asked to remember great moments in your career those are the ones that jump straight into your mind.

“There are loads of fun times in dressing rooms but you remember picking up a trophy, seeing your parents in the crowd. That day, that night, is the time to enjoy it most.”

There was a much less glorious day last month when Munster and O’Connell’s interest in the European Rugby Champions Cup was ended by a crushing 33–10 defeat to Saracens. O’Connell did not play well and the margin of defeat was startling. “I think they’re a better side than us,” he says with typical candour. “We’re a young side and we have a long way to go and the gap was very big. Personally, it was a very poor game. I was really frustrated with myself and it was a very disappointing day – but, luckily, they have been few and far between at Munster.

“I’m old enough now to know you can’t dwell on it. It is easier to put it behind you because I see it for what it is. Less experienced guys can get caught up in the doomsday scenario. I know we’ve got a great culture, a very good group of players, great coaches, and everyone is eager to be successful at Munster. We just need to learn from those experiences.”

Munster hammered Sale 65-10 the following week and O’Connell had a storming match. His four-year-old son, Paddy, came into the changing room after the game. “We have little biscuits laid out and he was eating them. After about five minutes of biscuit-eating he looked up at me and asked who had won.”

Paddy O’Connell, clearly, has got his priorities right. His father and mother, Emily, also became parents to a second child three months ago. “We had a baby girl – Lola,” O’Connell says. “There’s a TV show …”

The huge lock looks a little bashful. “Charlie and Lola,” I say, having first read the same books to my own children almost 15 years ago. “Exactly,” O’Connell grins. “Charlie’s the older brother. So Paddy came up with Lola as the name for his new sister. She’s great.”

As his family expands, it might be tempting for O’Connell to consider an end to his playing career after this tumultuous season. “I’m not really thinking about it,” he says, “and I honestly don’t know whether this will be my last Six Nations. I haven’t made a decision either way yet.”

Does O’Connell know what he might do once he stops playing? “I have a few ideas but I’m not 100% clear. It’s a bit worrying but it’s also quite exciting. All I know is that when I do retire I will take a proper break. And then the most important thing is to find something that doesn’t feel like a job. That’s the way I am now. If I had a choice I would train every day of the week, do video, do preparation. I love what I do and it’s important to find that same passion.”

O’Connell is enthused by all he has learnt under Schmidt; and it’s easy to imagine him becoming a leading coach. “Yeah, I’m very interested in coaching and how we communicate. The best coaches seem to be very good communicators and they understand how people learn. So, yes, coaching is a possibility.”

A triumphant Six Nations, with games at home against England and France, followed by a successful World Cup, is just as possible. O’Connell’s face cracks open in a wide smile as he relishes his immediate future. “Apart from a few bumps and bruises I’m on an injury-free run – unlike the last few seasons. I’m contracted until the summer of 2016. So I’ve got some time and it certainly helps that this is a World Cup year. That makes it particularly exciting and it’s probably why I’m enjoying rugby more than ever.”

Contributor

Donald McRae

The GuardianTramp

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