O'Connell: We can't sit back
Published 17/03/2011 | 05:00
Paul O'Connell doesn't need a satchel and blackboard to shout the odds in what is a momentous week of Anglo-Irish sporting glory.
After yesterday's tumultuous events in Cheltenham, espied carefully by the squad's racing fans in the team room, England's over-arching favouritism for a Grand Slam should not, perhaps, be taken at face value.
But then, O'Connell will have noted that a clean sweep for Ireland in the Cotswolds was thwarted in the final bumper. Now his side aim to thwart the Red Rose's own quest to go through the rugby card.
However, Ireland's record against England in recent years brooks no reasonable argument: since the parallel fixture eight campaigns ago, O'Connell's men have prevailed in six of seven attempts, the sole loss a deflating effort during the dying embers of Eddie O'Sullivan's reign in 2008.
"It's still a massive fixture," says O'Connell, folding himself into an ill-fitting chair. "I suppose we've had a very good record against them in recent years but it's still a massive fixture for any Irish person.
"I'd have massive respect for England, for their coach, what he stands for in rugby and a lot of their players. The last time I played England for a Grand Slam decider I came off the bench in 2003 and we had a disappointing result that day, so we've been here before and it's certainly going to be a very tough game."
It took six years for Ireland to bridge that pain in '03 -- O'Connell conveniently skips over the English visitors' slavish attempts to rehash carpet-gate -- and the experience of 2009 affords him a glimpse into the pressure that will accompany England's baggage when they pitch up in Dublin tomorrow.
"I suppose similar to England we'd a lot of experience in the team at that stage with Ireland," he recalls. "It was a nervous week and a big week for us. We'd been there before in Grand Slam deciders and lost, we'd been there before with our clubs and won and lost so there was a lot of experience there.
"So while it was a nervous week, really I think when you have the experience it probably makes you better, the pressure. England are in a similar situation in that they're probably very well aware that there's a Grand Slam on the line, the first one for them for a long time, and while the pressure will be tough at times probably it will make them better."
It should conceivably also drive Ireland on, the twin aims of denying ancient foes a prized crown and ironing out a season of missed opportunities the perfect motivation to belatedly deliver the ultimate 80 minutes that has oddly deserted O'Connell's men this spring.
"It's been very frustrating, yeah," he says. "I think when we've gone over our games we've done a lot of stuff well. Sometimes we've put together patches of play which have been just as good as anything we have done, certainly since I've been involved in Ireland.
"Added to that, at times when we've played well, we've chosen, for some reason, to sit back and soak up the pressure and you can't do that. I don't think we've put in a real 80-minute performance in the Six Nations yet and that's where you need to be in international rugby.
"You need very high-intensity, 80-minute performances and we haven't done that. That's what we need to do if we're going to get a result against England."
He is self-deprecatingly rueful when asked whether this campaign would suffice at World Cup time.
"Well obviously our results at the moment wouldn't be good enough in a World Cup, particularly if we were in the knockout stage --we'd be gone! The big thing for us is an 80-minute performance.
"I think we've enough time before the World Cup to iron out things. You know it would be very tough if we went through the Six Nations knocking balls over the bar for our points, but we have scored tries.
"We scored three good tries against France, we scored three tries against Scotland and created a lot of opportunities. If we put in an 80-minute performance this weekend and get a win, we can be in good shape going into the World Cup and it can kick-start our year."
But this weekend is all about the result and Ireland's game-plan -- whatever that may be -- is a sideline issue.
"I think there's an ambition to do whatever is right at the time," O'Connell asserts.
"If we have to kick the ball all day hopefully the lads will do that. If it's on to run all day, hopefully the lads will do that. We've just got to make the right decisions at the right time. That's what any team aspires to do and we're no different."
Beating the odds by any means necessary.