Tuesday 24 April 2018

O'Connell: England better than ever

Paul O'Connell believes England's class of 2015 are the strongest he has faced in his career - more powerful even than Sir Clive Woodward's 2003 World Cup winners.

Ireland captain O'Connell bestowed the ultimate compliment on England and head coach Stuart Lancaster, ahead of Sunday's RBS 6 Nations Grand Slam eliminator.

O'Connell was a second-half replacement when England battered Ireland 42-6 in Dublin to claim the Grand Slam in 2003, before marching to the World Cup crown in Australia later the same year.

Ireland's 35-year-old talisman and skipper admitted victory over England at the Aviva Stadium, even with the visitors making light of a raft of injuries, would rank among the finest of his Test career.

"It would be right up there with anything we've achieved," O'Connell said of a potential victory over England on Sunday.

"Beating England is always a big thing for Irish teams.

"I don't think I've beaten an England team or a squad as strong as this one in my time playing for Ireland.

"I think this is the strongest that I've come across them in my career, so they will be right up there.

"They are a very big side, very powerful men - a big strong powerful bench as well.

"Stuart Lancaster seems to have created something similar to what we have here, in that there's incredible competition for places.

"The likes of James Haskell have been waiting to get in there for a long time, and he's gotten in there and he realises he needs to take his chance and he's been excellent.

"They are very disciplined and very organised. I've worked with Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell - they are brilliant coaches and brilliant man-managers.

"They are very clever tactical guys as well, and I would say the players are really responding to and enjoying that.

"So it's a combination of a lot of things that has put them in a really strong position."

For the majority of the week's build-up Ireland's coaches and players have sought to diffuse the notion that beating England matters more to the squad than any other victory.

O'Connell, however, who will win his 99th Ireland cap this weekend, admitted Joe Schmidt's side must channel all the emotion that goes into facing England.

Munster lock O'Connell believes boss Lancaster's insistence on his players upholding high levels of conduct underpins their solid progression in his tenure.

"I think passion still plays a big role in rugby: you still have to play with passion and emotion, but also you still have to have your head screwed on from a discipline point of view," he said.

"It's a big emotional occasion and we'll be drawing on that as much as we can.

"England have great strength in depth, they have been building that and they seem to have a great attitude throughout their squad.

"They have a great mentality and discipline, and they are really organised.

"It hasn't surprised me they've done well. I thought they were harshly criticised in the autumn.

"That Wales game was a standard-bearer for the rest of the competition and they really did set the standard there.

"We've obviously lost the last four in a row against them and that's disappointing.

"Last year I thought we put ourselves in a great position to win after 50 minutes and it's testament to them as a team that they came back to win.

"They are an excellent side, very organised, very disciplined and a strong team, and that's probably why we have a poor record against them in recent years."

Hooker Dylan Hartley continues to bristle against his woeful disciplinary record that now stretches to 50 weeks of career bans, even though Lancaster has unequivocally backed the England front-rower.

Hartley will surpass Brian Moore as England's second-most capped hooker this weekend, and O'Connell said he is not surprised Lancaster has kept faith with Northampton's gritty competitor.

"I think we all make mistakes. It's down to the quality of the person then, and the player, to respond," O'Connell said.

"He's obviously captained Northampton for a long time. He's obviously a good-quality guy, and we've all made slip-ups.

"I think the character of the people that England seem to be selecting at the moment seems to be a big part of their success.

"I don't know Dylan Hartley that well - I've only met him a few times - but he seems to be a good guy.

"For me he's a fantastic player, and that's what they go to."

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