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Paul O'Connell excited to go off the beaten track

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Paul O'Connell arrives in Buenos Aires ahead of Ireland's two-test summer tour of Argentina. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Paul O'Connell arrives in Buenos Aires ahead of Ireland's two-test summer tour of Argentina. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Paul O'Connell arrives in Buenos Aires ahead of Ireland's two-test summer tour of Argentina. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

As the double decker bus carrying the Irish squad slowly made its way from Ministro Pistarini Airport on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to the team's base in the district of Retiro, Paul O'Connell looked out at a view he had not seen before.

Even inside the coach, there were unfamiliar faces around him. This tour is a new experience for the captain in more ways than one.

Twelve years have passed since Ireland truly went off road like they are doing in the next 12 days. On Thursday, they'll leave the Argentinian capital for the less heralded Resistencia on the Paraguayan border and, while they'll return to the safety of Buenos Aires for a brief sojourn, their next pilgrimage north will take them to Tucuman.

COMFORTS

Neither is known for its home comforts, but O'Connell has been in a more difficult situation and come out the other side.

It may feel like a lifetime ago, but the 2003 tour that went from Perth to Nuku'alofa in Tonga and Apia in Samoa was the kind of trip that leaves an indelible mark.

The current crop may be heading into the unknown, but it won't compare to the hardship endured on a trip that O'Connell believes earned him his stripes.

"I was the only redhead who played 80 minutes against Samoa," he said with a smile at the memory of his eighth cap. "Jonny Bell came off, Anthony Horgan came off ... Rog had to be taken off with 20 minutes to go, he was talking rubbish.

"It was 35 degrees. I remember Paul Honiss, the referee, actually didn't think we'd come out for the second half.

"I hadn't had my place in the previous Six Nations as I was injured, so this was my chance to win my place back. We had this really tough game against Tonga and a really tough game against Samoa, where they had a lot of their players back from Super Rugby and some who were playing in the Celtic League at the time.

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"We played really, really well. We beat Tonga well and we beat Samoa 40-14 when I don't know if we were expected to win at all. So, for me and Simon Easterby it was our really good shot at establishing ourselves in the team.

"In the World Cup the following November we both started, so what we lacked in experience on that tour we made up in our eagerness to make a mark and take our chance."

The moral of the story is that sometimes it is good to get out of your comfort zone.

"All the tours are very similar now. You go to cities you've been to before. You stay in the same hotels you stayed in maybe three times before in maybe Australia or New Zealand," he continued.

"We came in to the hotel (in Argentina) on a double decker bus and it's very, very different to anywhere I've been before. I'm sure Tucuman and Chaco will be different again. So, for me at 34 it is exciting."

O'Connell is the last man standing from that 2003 tour, although Gordon D'Arcy was rested for this trip and Peter Stringer and Donncha O'Callaghan are not done just yet.

Still, he is still going strong. A Six Nations winning captain set to lead his country into the 2015 World Cup at the end of which he will be 36. Time is catching up on his team-mates, but the 2009 Lions skipper is still holding himself accountable to the highest standards as he assesses the season just gone.

"It was a bit of a struggle at times. I was disappointed when I got injured in pre-season," he reflected.

"That was the way it started for me, but in terms of with Ireland it was a really enjoyable year. There was a lot of learning in it, it was my first time working under Joe (Schmidt) and I'd heard a lot about him, it was really enjoyable and to lift the trophy by beating France in Paris was very special.

"Historically, this was the hardest Six Nations for us to win because we had England and France away from home, so that was brilliant. The other part of it with Joe is you always feel there is so much to improve, so many other areas we can get better at as well.

"From a Munster point of view it was a disappointing season. It was great to get to two semi-finals but I never felt we struck a consistent form throughout the year."

His long-time colleagues may be going or gone, but O'Connell's desire to win remains unaffected by age.

For him, the next two weeks are about new experiences, but for Schmidt it is the captain's knowledge that will prove invaluable as he looks to unearth a gem or two on the Argentinian frontiers.


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