Tuesday 16 July 2019

'These are the games you feel nervous about'

Paul O'Connell won most of his England jousts but never halted Chariot at top speed, he tells Julian Bennetts

Paul O’Connell will be more than happy to watch this Saturday’s Ireland v England game from the stands. 'Rather than wishing I was still out there,' he says. 'When I watch the collisions I shudder to think what would happen to my body if I were out there'. Photo: Getty
Paul O’Connell will be more than happy to watch this Saturday’s Ireland v England game from the stands. 'Rather than wishing I was still out there,' he says. 'When I watch the collisions I shudder to think what would happen to my body if I were out there'. Photo: Getty

Julian Bennetts

Grand Slam showdowns between Ireland and England in Dublin can make people do strange things.

Paul O'Connell has seen it at first hand. He stood in the mud at Lansdowne Road when Martin Johnson refused to move along the red carpet, forcing President Mary McAleese to dirty her shoes in 2003.

Eight years on he felt an assured English side bend, buckle and break in the face of an Irish onslaught as Johnson - this time as head coach - was denied a Slam at the last.

He has watched the pitch invasion after Mick Galwey's try in 1995, belted out the anthems at Croke Park in 2007, and directed the aerial bombardment that proved too much for England in 2015.

If anyone can provide a flavour of what it feels like to be in the middle of an Ireland-England showdown then it is O'Connell, a man seamlessly adjusting to his second life as a pundit after his first career as one of the greatest forwards and leaders the northern hemisphere has ever produced.

In his view there are no better games to be involved in as a player, coach or fan - particularly with Eddie Jones' England crossing the Irish Sea knowing victory would secure a second successive Slam.

The dejection of the 2003 loss. Photo: Sportsfile
The dejection of the 2003 loss. Photo: Sportsfile

"I think Ireland against England in Dublin stands out now," says O'Connell. "England have the most money in the world, the most rugby players playing professionally, and there probably was historically a big thing about the Ireland-England fixture.

"It's obviously a very big game and, as a player, these are the games you feel nervous about. Come Friday you almost want to get on a plane and leave the country rather than deal with it. The nerves sometimes makes it. When you are eating the pre-match meal sometimes it is the last place you want to be, but by the time you get out on the pitch you feel great and you can't wait for it."

When O'Connell felt great England generally had cause to be worried. He won eight of his 13 games against the Red Rose, but few would match the drama of his first, in 2003. Both sides were going for a Slam but that England side of Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jonny Wilkinson were in the habit of making statements - although few expected any quite so overt before the match.

"What happened before was incredible," laughs O'Connell as he thinks back to Johnson's decision not to move to England's allocated side of the red carpet, ensuring the dignitaries had to walk through the mud to greet the two teams.

Running out to lay down a marker in Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Running out to lay down a marker in Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

"You do those things and if you win it looks like a stroke of genius, but if you lose it looks very, very disrespectful. I suppose Martin felt he couldn't budge and once he stood where he did he genuinely couldn't budge.

"I'd been out injured and was on the bench that day. I came on when it was 13-6 and it finished 42-6 so I didn't have a big impact! That English team had a fantastic group of players with incredible leadership. They were on a journey to that World Cup and it probably kicked off with that big win at Lansdowne Road against us."


If O'Connell says those words slightly through gritted teeth it is because he never really got the chance to avenge that defeat. True, Ireland beat England in each of the next four years but the side of 2003 disintegrated after climbing their Everest. And if there is one regret the 37-year-old has of games between the two nations during his career it is that England were a shadow of their former selves after their World Cup triumph.

"There was a period in the mid-2000s when England weren't all that strong," he acknowledges.

"I just don't think they were as strong as they were previously and they weren't as strong as they have become recently. There was that period there where England were just always incredibly physical but they were just nowhere near as good as they are now, or as good as they had been in 2003."

That dip is epitomised for O'Connell by the 2007 game at Croke Park, when the GAA opened its doors to rugby union for the first time. It is remembered as one of the great rugby occasions, but for O'Connell the paucity of the opposition takes the sheen off it.

"It was a great occasion and I remember the anthems," he recalls "Belted out by the Irish crowd, who were very respectful of the English anthem, and I think England were too respectful in some ways.

"One of the things about that day was we won by a big, big scoreline (43-13), which made it an amazing day for us, but you'd nearly rather England had put in a bigger and better performance than that.

"They were missing that Will Carling or Martin Johnson-type character - a guy that would have absolutely revelled in destroying the day for us. They got Conor O'Shea to come in and explain the history of the ground and what it would mean to Ireland and I think they probably talked themselves out of a performance."

If England talked themselves out of a performance in 2007 they were simply beaten up four years later, the last time the Slam was on the line in this fixture. As with this year Ireland came into the game off the back of a defeat in Cardiff, but there was no way England were going to win a second Slam on Dublin soil.

"We weren't playing as well as we were capable of and England were playing really, really well," says O'Connell. "We didn't have as much consistency back then in how we prepared, but we were capable of those one-day big games. We came out of the blocks fast, took some risks.

"Johnny Sexton took a quick tap, we went into a big lead and never let up (winning 24-8). We were just a good team playing badly rather than a bad team playing badly."

The suspicion is that the same is true this time around - that a side containing Sexton, Conor Murray and CJ Stander simply can't lose three games in a single Six Nations. Ireland's odds would undoubtedly be improved if they had a fit and firing O'Connell on their team, however. So does he wish the nerves were still building and he was involved this week? Not a bit of it.

"I'm perfectly happy on the sidelines watching on," he says. "I had my time. Rather than wishing I was still out there, when I watch the collisions I shudder to think what would happen to my body if I were out there. I'm still recovering from the hamstring injury that ended my career. I've lost a lot of weight and I wouldn't be able to live in the environment as it is at the moment. I am happy watching on the couch or the terraces."

For the first time in 15 years O'Connell will not be at the heart of an Ireland-England game in Dublin. As he watches the madness unfold, he wouldn't have it any other way.


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