Marginal gains can help O'Connell go the distance
Published 30/07/2014 | 02:30
As 2013/14 wound to a close, Paul O'Connell could not stop talking about how much he was looking forward to pre-season training already.
You would think 13 campaigns as a professional rugby player would have calmed that particular desire, but the Ireland captain wasn't even done playing and he was already aching for the hurt that comes with July and August sessions.
While many players dread this time of year, the 34-year-old knows that the work done this month will stand him in good stead. He hasn't completed a pre-season since 2011 and says all of his best years – 2005, 2006 and 2008 – came on the back of full workouts before it all kicked off.
Pre-season has changed over the near decade and a half he has been playing, while the faces of those lining up alongside him on the sprint start-line have also changed and gotten younger.
The men with the whistles are arguably more familiar, even if a little professional distance is required.
Mick O'Driscoll was a long-time second-row partner, and Anthony Foley his predecessor as captain, but the hardest to get used to is the "strange" sight of Jerry Flannery barking orders.
"I'm trying to keep a straight face at times, because he's like a different person when he's coaching," O'Connell said with a smile.
The men he soldiered with are now in command, but he retains his status as a general in the field.
Last season, O'Connell played 17 times for Munster and led Ireland in all but one of their 10 Tests.
Part of the furniture again, it is easy to forget how long both teams went without their talismanic force when injury threatened to end his career prematurely.
Perhaps that is why he refuses to put a date on his retirement at the same time as applying caution to talk of the World Cup just 13 months away. A year is a long time in the life of a professional second-row about to turn 35.
Still, his disappointment with Ireland's poor performances in Argentina last month bely a player still driven to succeed at the highest level. "An awful lot of work" is needed to get Ireland to the level of contenders, the adidas ambassador said.
"I think it's important to keep stepping forward all the time and we probably didn't do that in Argentina. I know there was a few guys where it was their first time training and playing under Joe Schmidt – and it is a big change, there's a lot of things different to what you'll do in other places.
"It's important to keep improving all the time, even if it's by the smallest margins.
"One thing I noticed when we were in Pennyhill Park (England's base) before we went on the Lions tour in 2009, is there's a lot of memorabilia of the run they went on before they won the World Cup (in 2003).
"I think they were unbeaten against southern hemisphere teams (for 15 games). That's the kind of consistency, the level of performance you need to be able to go into a World Cup, and confidently go there to be saying that you're trying to win it.
"So, hopefully, we made massive progress during the Six Nations, maybe went a little bit backwards in Argentina, but I suppose we did broaden our squad.
"Hopefully we can make steps forward in the autumn and maintain confidence heading into the Six Nations and on to the World Cup."
Before then, there is the prospect of playing under the new regime of Foley, and O'Connell is expecting a somewhat stripped back game plan under the former No 8 as they face up to the toughest European campaign their spiritual leader can remember.
"We just have to be a little bit more practical in how we play, in particular at certain times of the year in terms of conditions," he said.
"It will be a little bit different but hopefully you'll see a lot of the good stuff we had in the last few years in terms of the width we played with at the right times.
"The big thing I would have been chasing over the last two years under Rob (Penney) was to have the right mixture – when to kick, when to keep it tight, when to go to width.
"And I think we did learn a lot of lessons about that over the last two years, we just didn't apply them as much and as often as we would have liked to."