Law and disorder
O'Connell: Timing all wrong -- but Ireland will just have to live with new interpretations
It's the issue that refuses to go away. As Declan Kidney again snubbed the invitation of IRB Referee's Manager Paddy O'Brien -- the Kiwi actually braved Ireland's HQ yesterday morning -- to have another meeting on the contentious tackle law, it is the players who have become pawns in a political game.
Player after player was wheeled out in Killiney to express differing levels of bafflement at the extraordinary decision to implement a new interpretation of something which, to the Irish Grand Slam champions, had become as habitual as putting one foot in front of the other.
"It's awkward," said Paul O'Connell, skirting diplomacy with as much grace as his inordinate frame can possibly muster. "It's just you see we're in a certain habit, that's the thing. It won't be a problem over time, but to change a habit in two days is quite difficult. It is the way it is and you just have to get on with it.
"Why it's happened mid-competition is strange. I can see the reason for it, people are getting so good at the breakdown now it is slowing up the game, but it's just not ideal for it to happen mid-competition.
"It's a big thing for us, it's a big part of our defence, it's something defence coach Les Kiss brought in, but, as I say, it's just a habit we have and will get out of -- we probably are already.
"You've just got to get on with it, there's been plenty of rule changes and it's the same for everybody else. It's about curbing your instincts. If you weren't doing things at a hundred miles an hour, it would be easier to think about what you're doing and stop yourself.
"But when you're in the heat of battle, your instincts take over and your habits, which up until now have been good habits for us, take over and it's just a little bit about de-training that."
If the game's administrators are increasingly detaching themselves from the reality of players and spectators on the ground, it is comforting to acknowledge that Irish rugby has never managed similar disconnects.
This is especially so when a contemporary manages to surpass the achievements of a certain Cameron Michael Henderson Gibson; then, respectful doffs of the hat are in order.
As Ireland bid farewell to Croke Park and, hopefully, hello to another piece of silverware for this hungry group of professional, totemic talisman O'Connell will surpass Gibson's Irish caps total of 69.
Despite that, a mere slip of a thing from Moyross has been chosen ahead of him to lead today's St Patrick's Day Parade in his native Limerick. You have to be on your toes in this group.
Remarkably, an international career that spanned 15 years produced not a single bauble for the gifted centre Gibson, Ireland's solitary genius on the green sward prior to the arrival of the current Irish captain.
And yesterday the recent centurion sought to pay tribute to his occasional stand-in as Ireland's keen band of experienced warriors bid to continue their remorseless drive towards the World Cup 2011 by landing another of the game's prizes this Saturday.
"It's a great achievement for Paulie," said Brian O'Driscoll. "When you hit those big numbers you definitely enjoy it. It's an important thing from a personal point of view. Like a lot of guys, it's only when you finish that you will look back on your career and what you've achieved.
"It's not really about dwelling on a number, it's more important what you do on the field. From his own personal point of view, it's a big deal for him and I'm sure he'll win many more. But I'd say he's more concerned about winning the game than the 70 caps."
O'Connell joins Kevin Maggs as Ireland's eighth-record Irish caps holder and the player himself, arguably returning to the stellar form which earned him a Lions captaincy last summer, will try his damnedest to shrug off the significance of the milestone.
"I am delighted to have been involved in so many games and played so many times, especially with the way things are going in Irish rugby, the provinces, the national side. It's been a great run. It's probably even more enjoyable now than when I was first capped."
Already, he can see the new kids on the block snapping at his heels and driving the team forward. Notably Keith Earls, his Limerick colleague and grand marshal in today's Limerick celebration.
"It's the same as when the young guys like Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney came in last year," enthuses O'Connell. "That youthful enthusiasm with no fear, always willing to have a go.
"They are so well coached coming through the academies and they're in such good condition -- for a young guy Earlsy, he is a big young fellah and unbelievably modest, which is great.
"He has been brilliant for us since he came in, so positive around the changing room, so positive around the camp. You would be envious of the career he had ahead of him."
Future thoughts can't cloud present concerns; the leaving of Croke Park with a Triple Crown salver by numbing the over-rated party-pooping credentials of the Scots.
"They're a very tough side," appreciates O'Connell. "An unbelievably physical side and I think their position in the table belies how they've been playing -- they've been playing really well at the moment.
"They've a very strong back-row, with very strong ball carriers. I thought they played a lot of good rugby against England and they'll be aiming to get a result that fits their form this weekend."