Sunday 17 December 2017

O'Connell: New guard good for squad

New captain Paul O'Connell will start his first Ireland match for 18 months on Saturday against Australia, undeterred by his lengthy injury-enforced absence.
New captain Paul O'Connell will start his first Ireland match for 18 months on Saturday against Australia, undeterred by his lengthy injury-enforced absence.

Ireland captain Paul O'Connell is refusing to bow to the changing of the guard that has crept up during his injury-ravaged two years.

The veteran lock admits Ireland face a new era "whether we like it or not" - but will not be overawed by the advance of the next generation.

Head coach Joe Schmidt's twin totems O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll will start an Ireland game together for the first time since the quarter-finals of Rugby World Cup 2011 on Saturday.

O'Connell last started for Ireland 18 months ago, when seven of Saturday's match squad-mates for the autumn international against Australia had not even been capped.

Undeterred by his extended absence, the 34-year-old has backed boss Schmidt to keep building Ireland's strength in depth.

The 86-cap lock said: "Recent years have forced Ireland to bring players through.

"When you give guys opportunity they tend to perform.

"The likes of Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan wouldn't have been around when I was there 18 months ago.

"But they've come through now and are performing so well.

"That youthful enthusiasm and strength in depth in training, it keeps everyone sharp.

"It improves things all-round.

"In the past you would have been able to pick a lot of the team. But now none of the players were able to pick the team, it was only when Joe confirmed it that we knew for sure.

"And I think that's an excellent thing for a squad, it drives standards higher and keeps a squad consistent."

On skippering the side, O'Connell added: "Being captain is enjoyable most of the time, but there's pressure with it too.

"I've done it plenty of times with Ireland, on and off with Munster recently and for a long time with Munster in the past.

"It's an exciting time for Irish rugby, and an exciting time to be captain too.

"I don't think it needed things freshening up at all for me. I tend not to change much whether I'm captain or not.

"It is nice to be captain, Joe's a new coach, he has a very different way of doing things and communicating with the players.

"He expects very different things from the players too.

"So whether we like it or not it is a new start."

O'Connell is finally injury-free after back trouble gave way to the broken arm that ended his British and Irish Lions tour, and then the calf problem that has wrecked his start to the new campaign.

Saturday's opponents Australia marvelled at O'Connell's ability to play through the pain of that arm fracture in the first Lions Test.

But the Munster stalwart has revealed he had no idea he was nursing anything so serious, hence why he completed the match in the Lions' 23-21 victory.

O'Connell continued: "It wasn't that sore or that bad: the doctor said it was nerve damage, so you're not going to contradict him.

"I knew there wasn't long left, my hand could still function fine so it wasn't that sore.

"I don't think it was the Roy of the Rovers story everyone thought it was.

"But it was frustrating afterwards, because when I came off my hand could still function fairly fine.

"Then when I got the scan I found out I had a fracture in my arm and at the base of my hand as well it was really frustrating because you know you're out then."

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