'I'm playing under a lot less pressure'
Player of the year O'Connell revelling in new mindset of avoiding distractions
Published 14/05/2015 | 02:30
When Paul O'Connell was last hailed by his peers - and nine years seems an indecently long time for it to happen given his extraordinary influence on Irish teams - his mantelpiece was hardly weighed down with silverware.
A Celtic Cup and League with Munster represented his then-modest harvest; since then, his mantelpiece has overfloweth and, most probably, collapsed beneath the weight of his achievements in the game.
For, in the nine years since last being hailed by his peers, O'Connell has accomplished a huge amount in the sport, adding another European title with Munster, three Six Nations titles and a personal pinnacle: captaining the 2009 British & Irish Lions.
"It is amazing to think what has been packed into that time," said the Hibernia College IRUPA Players' Player of the Year 2015 in an exclusive Irish Independent interview.
"Sometimes you only remember the hard times. The wins seem so fleeting and you move on from them so quickly, and you torture yourself so much during the hard times when you've been injured or when you've not been successful. So those times often stick out more but when you put it to me like that in terms of achievements, you kind of go, 'Crikey, it was actually a great period'.
"I've persevered if nothing else. I've had some bad injuries, some which have changed the way I've trained and which then have changed the way I play.
"I've fought hard to try to believe that I could still be good despite the injuries and having to do things differently. I hope it's all an advertisement for perseverance if anything."
But there have been darker times in the player's career, to which he alluded, including the worrying period when a nasty infection and resultant complications forced him off the field for much of 2010.
Since then, he has suffered regularly from injury to his knees and ankle, while also breaking his arm during the victorious Lions series in 2013, all of which has informed a daily philosophy that sees him rooted firmly in the moment.
"I'm definitely playing under a whole lot less pressure now than I used to," he says. "As long as I prepare well, you generally get what you deserve at the weekend. And it's about enjoying preparing well and being with a team. Sometimes it will go your way more often than not, sometimes it won't like against Wales.
"It's about enjoying it a little bit more. I would have put savage pressure on myself and by extension my team-mates. It's not a way to enjoy yourself. Now it's about concentrating on each job and it's definitely a less pressure-filled way to go about things.
"I'd say I think every game is my last, I try not to look too beyond games unless it's about preparation. It's a good way to be. Even in the games itself, I don't look beyond half-time, or even beyond the first five minutes. It avoids distractions and takes the pressure off."
That approach has served the player and Ireland well during back-to-back Six Nations title successes and will remain unswervingly the template in this year's World Cup.
"It was a great year for Irish rugby, from starting unbeaten in the autumn. We were disappointed to leave a Grand Slam behind us but we lost to a good side in Wales and they were hard to beat off a 12-0 lead.
"We tried to improve from game to game and championship to championship. We're concentrating on getting better all the time instead of reinventing the wheel and that's the approach we'll have come the World Cup.
"It was just a very, very enjoyable competition for me and the squad. It's about getting better at what we're good at."
That will remain O'Connell's focus until he finally decides, well beyond the date he once thought more likely, to hang up his storied boots.
Supporters echoed the views of the players with O'Connell also taking home the Newstalk Supporters' Player of the Year 2015.
Connacht and Ireland's Robbie Henshaw has been named the Nevin Spence Young Player 2015 for an amazing third year in succession, making him the only winner to win three IRUPA awards in a row.
Nominated in three categories, including the Players' Player of the Year, he added to his tally by winning the VW Try of the Year for his try against England in the RBS Six Nations win in Dublin.
Joining Ireland's heroes in the BNY Mellon IRUPA Hall of Fame was Munster and Ireland flanker David Wallace.
Leinster's Darragh Fanning collected the 3 Unsung Hero Award.
Connacht stalwart Michael Swift was awarded the Hibernia College Medal for Excellence, which rewards on-field effort combined with off-field commitment to the game.
The Zurich Contribution to Irish Society Award was presented to Alan Quinlan in recognition of the significant impact made to society raising the profile of mental health and depression in Ireland.
The BNY Mellon Women's Sevens Player of the Year was presented to Lucy Mulhall for her consistent performances.