Wednesday 21 March 2018

Paul O'Connell: If you want to play at your best for Ireland, I don't think playing in France is the answer

Ireland captain '90pc sure' about when he is going to call it a day

Paul O’Connell: ‘It’s not a bad position to be in, to be playing well and for people to be eager for you to play on’
Paul O’Connell: ‘It’s not a bad position to be in, to be playing well and for people to be eager for you to play on’
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Paul O'Connell sighs as he eases his huge frame into a swivel chair at the top of the table and smiles.

"I know what ye'll want to talk about anyway lads," he says, before fielding a couple of questions about the speculation linking him with Toulon.

At the end of all that, it is clearly unlikely that the temptations of the Cote d'Azur will attract him after this year's World Cup, so the real burning issue in the great second-row's mind comes to the forefront. The 'R' word.

We are living in the era of great Irish sporting retirements and after Brian O'Driscoll, Henry Shefflin and AP McCoy said goodbye, the nation now awaits O'Connell's expiry date with trepidation.

It seems odd to be even talking about the end of the Limerick legend's great career in the midst of one of its finest hours.


He has just skippered his country to back-to-back Six Nations titles, has been crowned player of the championship and is a shoo-in for all of the Irish player of year awards on offer.

The World Cup looms large in September and even O'Connell admits he's excited about his fourth tilt at the Webb Ellis trophy, allowing himself break from his normal game-to-game mantra to admit that Ireland have a chance under Joe Schmidt.

And yet, he is 35 and acknowledges that the tournament in England offers a natural end to a glittering career.

The thing is, he's not quite there yet. Ninety per cent of the decision is made, but he isn't ready to fully confirm his intentions.

"It would be a natural exit point I suppose," he says of the World Cup. "I have chatted to so many people and, people talk about retiring at the top and that.

"While I agree with them, it is very hard to walk away when you are really enjoying it. I love training and I love being involved in the build-up to matches, with the coaches and trying to figure things out and I'm really looking forward to pre-season and I'm putting plans in place for that at the moment. Already, I'm putting plans in place for that at the moment.

"The Six Nations went really well for me, the body felt great. I've a small shoulder injury but it's no big deal. I really didn't think 18 months ago/two years ago that I'd be in such a good place and that's probably what's delaying me pulling the trigger on a decision. It's a hard one."

A conversation with McCoy has helped muddy the waters.

"The day you 100 per cent say, 'This is exactly what I'm going to do' you're kind of stuck with that," he explains.

"I met AP McCoy a few weeks ago and he said he was kind of punishing himself, he made a decision and he's making himself stay with it. I thought it was a strange thing to say and I don't want to do that to myself yet until I'm 100pc what I'm doing.

"It seems to be a huge wrench for him. I envy the position Brian was in - he was 100pc in no doubt it was the right thing to do.

"I think he kind of kicked on and went for another year. I spoke to him recently and he doesn't regret that in the slightest. That's the advice he gave me; if you are in doubt, he had no regret about going another year.

"Look, it's not a bad position to be in, to be playing well and for people eager for you to play on."

Certainly, O'Connell doesn't appear to envisage a situation whereby he'd be retiring from international rugby to play for a French club. Asked about the conditions at Toulon where senior professionals have managed schedules and only play in the biggest games, he brought up the example of his international colleague Johnny Sexton.


"If you want to play at your best for Ireland, I don't think playing in France is the answer for any Irish player," he said.

"Look at this Six Nations when Johnny played these big games for Ireland when there's a lot of pressure on him, out-half is probably the most stressful position on the team, and we then have a down week when we can train hard but mentally switch off - he had to travel home and play in a big game. It's not an easy thing to do."

While the end might be dominating his thoughts, O'Connell has the Pro12 run-in on his mind and he expects to return from the shoulder injury that has affected him in recent weeks for next week's derby against Ulster.

The big date on the horizon, however, is the World Cup and he is already excited thinking about the tournament.

"I feel very good about it and I'm really looking forward to it," the adidas ambassador says. "I enjoy the way we handle the expectation. I'm sure Joe and the management look forward to the bigger picture and that, but as players we're just encouraged to look at what's ahead of you and prepare for that as best you can. I've the rest of this week off and then hopefully I'm into a three-week run-in, if we're lucky it could be a four-week run-in. Four weeks off and then we're into pre-season and we're into the big pre-World Cup friendlies then.

"We are put under a lot of pressure on how we prepare for games and it takes away the distraction of the bigger picture.

"Certainly in 2007 we got engulfed with the expectation of the World Cup and we felt that we had to say we had a chance of winning it, to make ourselves believe it, but I think going into this one we know that we if we do a whole load of things right between now and the World Cup we can put ourselves in with a chance.

"It's a slim chance and it's an outside chance. I just think it's a good way of approaching the competition, it's a good way of approaching things. It has worked really well for us in the last 18 months under Joe, not getting too obsessed with the bigger picture and focusing on the here and now."

It is clear that 2007 still haunts the big second-row who feels he and others over-trained for that tournament.

"We were given time off to allow the training to accumulate," he recalls.

"I remember chatting to Donners (Donncha O'Callaghan), Strings (Peter Stringer) and Rog (Ronan O'Gara), we never actually took the time off, we used to go back home and do our own training.

"That is going to be an important thing, that experience, because normally we don't spend pre-season with Ireland. At World Cups you spend all the time together in Irish camp. You have the top players in the country.

"So it ends up being very, very competitive, you end up training very, very hard and if you don't take your down time and allow the training to accumulate you can end up over-training. That would be the big thing for me in 2007, that I kind of overdid it a little bit and a few of us did it.

"We had such high hopes. Unfortunately, we didn't perform at all, we didn't do what we did in 2011 when we played well but lost to a good Welsh team. We just completely flopped and didn't perform at all. It was just a really disappointing experience in every way."

If it is to be the end, O'Connell is determined that he'll go out having given the world's biggest tournament one last crack... If.

Irish Independent

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