I'll savour every moment I've left in game – O'Connell
Inspirational skipper admits injury woes have made him hungrier than ever, writes
IT is only now that he is back in the national camp preparing for Test matches that Paul O'Connell realises it was the little things he missed the most.
The rapturous Lansdowne Road reception the new Ireland captain received when he took to the field during the second half of last Saturday's win over Samoa reminded the Irish public just what they had been missing during his 20-month absence from the green jersey, but it was the simple moments that brought it all into focus.
As he prepares to lead his team into battle for the first time as the official captain rather than the stand-in, the former Munster and Lions skipper can reflect on a difficult journey through a succession of injuries that have kept him on 85 caps since the draw against France in Paris during the 2012 Six Nations.
The Samoan hit-out refreshed O'Connell's taste for the international arena and he now goes into this weekend's step up in class against the Aussies, desperate to savour his international career as it enters its closing chapters.
"You take for granted things like popping into Rala's (bagman Patrick O'Reilly) room in the week of the Tests and how special those moments are," O'Connell recalled.
"The bus to the ground, the Aviva – those moments are going to be less and less for me now.
"There aren't as many years ahead of me as I would like to have, so it definitely makes you enjoy it more, cherish it more.
"The build-up to the last few weeks has been great, the training has been good and it gives me a great vibe going into the last couple of years of my career."
When he left the Stade de France field in March 2012, O'Connell (pictured below) couldn't have imagined that he would next wear green as a 34-year-old captain.
Problems with his knee, back, groin and a broken arm have kept him out of the international arena and deprived Ireland of one of what Joe Schmidt described as their two talismans in himself and Brian O'Driscoll; the pair last played together against Wales in Wellington in 2011.
Missing out is something he has had to get used to and it only makes O'Connell want success even more now that he's available to captain his country.
"There is nothing you can do. You pick up an injury and the worst thing you can do is get down about it, because that sets you back even further," he explained.
"You are already in a tough place, you are out of the team environment, out of the match environment, out of the pressure build-up which really sharpens your game and it sharpens any weakness you might have, conditioning wise; they really get exposed in training and in games and you get to work on them.
"So, when you are injured you don't have that test every week – to test your ability every week – and it can be difficult trying to stay sharp.
"It is part and parcel of the game and, for some of us, it is more part of the game than for others."
He has taken the mantle of captain from Jamie Heaslip and was happy to accept it when Schmidt offered him the role.
"It's a big honour, it's something I enjoy and I hope I can add to it," he said.
"There are other parts of it which are tough, definitely. I saw Jamie saying last year that you do wear losses that bit more as captain. Players put themselves under more pressure when they are captain, there is a lot of media work, but that's all part of it.
"I have captained my country at various times throughout my career, from when I was 24 for the first time, and I have done it on and off when Brian's been injured.
"So, it's something I'm familiar with, something I enjoy doing and, hopefully, we'll be successful."
Any success will be driven by the core of lieutenants O'Connell has at his disposal. At any one time he can look around his team and see leadership figures with big-game experience.
"It is very rare that a young, inexperienced side wins big Test matches or tournaments," he said.
"Throughout the team we have plenty of captains, we probably have guys who have ambitions to be captain as well. I think what Joe wants is guys that will lead with their actions and you see that throughout the squad in the way lads prepare during the week.
"Sometimes when you're in a young team and you're captain, it can be a lonely place, but here it certainly isn't. When you look across the team you have the provincial captains who are there, you have the former international captains. Then you have 'Sexto' (Johnny Sexton), Eoin Reddan, Sean O'Brien, Rob Kearney – real experience and real leadership there as well.
"As a captain it puts you in a good place; everyone seems to know their role inside out here. You're not worried about anyone else, just about yourself."
Those worries will be eased by the rituals and routines that have remind- ed him of what it means to be an Ireland inter- national over the past fortnight.
It's time to make the most of being back.