Friday 23 March 2018

O'Connell banking on hard work to halt unpredictable French

David Kelly

David Kelly

When it comes to sport, Paul O'Connell would be one of the more ecumenical members within the Irish rugby squad.

His childhood included early mornings as an Olympic hopeful in the swimming pool and later, as an aspirant scratch golfer on the local green swards. Matters GAA weren't excluded from his sporting passions either -- Limerick hurler Niall Horan was a year ahead of him in Ardscoil Rís and nobody would be more eager to witness a resolution to the Treaty hurling crisis than O'Connell.

The loudest cheer in the team's Killiney base on their day off on Wednesday emerged from O'Connell's room when his beloved Everton came from behind to defeat Chelsea.

All the while, the Stade de France clash looms this weekend, even at this premature stage of the competition almost certainly a championship decider.

Beating the French on their own turf remains one of the few gaps on the virtually impeccable O'Connell CV. Beating them anywhere at national level remains a career highlight for the Limerick man.

"Last year was my first ever to beat France," he said. "So, if we could beat them away from home, that would be an incredible feeling and a good box ticked in some of our careers."

To win in Paris, as Trevor Brennan suggested this week, will require Ireland preventing France from deploying their famed off-loading game; Ireland must not let France keep the pill off the ground for long periods.

"When France get into a rhythm, when they're off-loading and keeping the ball off the ground, I suppose the way they've grown up playing, it's very hard to defend," agreed O'Connell.

"Defences these days are very aware of what teams are going to do. However, with France, they keep the ball off the ground, they don't create rucks and they're incredibly hard to defend.

"Structurally, their attack goes out the window and they just can get into a great rhythm in terms of how they play.

"That's one of the hardest things about playing them, especially in Paris when they have the crowd behind him.

"A big part of it is your scrambled defence, where there's no structure to it all, they've off-loaded and gone through you.

"It's a work-rate thing, it's a desire thing and it's a big part of our game.

"I know that without the tackles Tommy (Bowe) and Brian (O'Driscoll) made against Scotland last year, that could have really messed up our Grand Slam chances.

"That's the sort of scrambled defence you have to have against France -- expect the unexpected and react to it.

"We did that well last season against them. We were opened up a few times in counter-attack play, but we always worked hard and got back into good positions.

"And when we were down there, we got a few scores, so both those aspects are huge elements of this game."

A win would be a career highlight?

"Absolutely. In my early years, I would have always looked at Peter Clohessy going over there, because he was Young Munster. He had a very tough time over there, very tough.

"Irish teams would go over with some having high hopes, others maybe not. But always coming out second best. To come to the stage where we believe we can win is great. Now it would be great to do it."

Irish Independent

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