Paul O'Connell is perfectly cast to be leading man
PAUL O’Connell may very well be the greatest Munster captain in history – he is probably just ahead of Mick Galwey in the Thomond Park Hall of fame – and if the gods had been smiling on the big ock in South Africa in 2009 he could have led the Lions to a glorious series win over the Springboks.
As a leader he has few contemporary equals. One accolade that has eluded him however, despite his 82 caps, is the honour of captaining Ireland through the myriad highs and lows of a Six Nations campaign.
With Brian O’Driscoll virtually ever-present for a decade or more O’Connell has slipped into the role of loyal deputy and pack leader. But for the next two months he is front of house.
Now it is O’Connell who will be at the centre of the endless press conferences before and after games, making sure the dressing-room buzz is just right and changing tactics on the hoof. It will be O’Connell trying to keep a lid on things after an Ireland win or explaining away a defeat.
The modern trend is to downplay the role of captain but that is disingenuous. Would England have won the World Cup without Martin Johnson?
Think of the games O’Driscoll has turned around for Ireland by his leadership and genius, defiance and sheer courage. Ditto for O’Connell at Munster as they have rampaged around Europe.
And do not forget how he more than anybody kept a bitterly disappointed Lions party up for the fight in the final week in South Africa in 2009. Though the series was lost, he still inspired one of the great Lions performances and a win in the third Test in Johannesburg.
“I will admit to be a little nervous as well as excited about the honour of captaining Ireland although I have stepped in occasionally,” he says.
“With Brian leading the group since Keith Wood stepped down after the 2003 World Cup it isn’t something I have considered much, but apart from one or two extra media duties I will be looking to just go about my work as usual. We have a lot of experience in the team, everybody knows their job, and I will just try and keep on top of things generally.”
It was 10 years ago that O’Connell announced himself on the international scene when he made an incident-packed Six Nations debut against Wales at Lansdowne Road.
Just out of his teens, the rawboned Limerick lad managed to knock himself senseless after bumping into Craig Quinnell’s elbow soon after the kick off and he still has no recollection of events until just before the final whistle.
What went on around him was that an inspired Ireland scored six tries and destroyed Wales 54-10. O’Connell even scored a try himself before going off with 2½ minutes to go. Three days later Graham Henry resigned as Wales coach.
“It was a strange old debut,” O’Connell says. “I eventually had to come off and I looked up at the clock, which said two minutes and 30 seconds. I turned round to our doctor and said ‘I can’t believe I’m coming off after only two minutes of my debut’.
"But he laughed and told me the clock was counting down, not showing how long had been played. I didn’t even remember scoring.”
O’Connell entered last season’s tournament under an injury cloud after struggling to shake off a persistent groin problem and did remarkably well for a man who was using full-on Six Nations matches to regain match fitness.
This season, however, he has returned to his peak, impressing for Munster and, relishing the huge arm wrestles that the Heineken Cup throws up.
Irish teams have been barnstorming around Europe, with Munster, Leinster and Ulster reaching the quarter-finals. Although outstanding club form does not automatically lead to international success – no Wales teams reached the knockout stages in their Grand Slam year of 2005 – it is always preferable to take momentum into the tournament.
“The provinces winning certainly gives the national team a lift,” O’Connell says.
“We’ll have a group of guys coming in from three teams who have been doing things differently yet have been successful. You bring in three different types of experience into a squad and that’s a good thing.
“It’s been good that most of us have been able to move away from that disappointing performance in the World Cup quarter-final against Wales and put a campaign together. It gets that performance out of the system. We’ve been used to winning games away from home and winning pressure games, figuring out ways to get the result.
“All of that should be good for the Ireland team. It certainly puts a spring in your step, I can’t wait for this Six Nations to begin.”