Sunday 19 November 2017

Alan Quinlan column: Everything, and I mean everything, Paul O'Connell does is for the team

Leinster winger wil lhope to bring his excellent training form to Aviva clash with Wales and give Schmidt a sleepless night as he finalises his selections

Ireland's Paul O'Connell and head coach Joe Schmidt during the captain's run
Ireland's Paul O'Connell and head coach Joe Schmidt during the captain's run

Alan Quinlan

Amidst all the wondering of who will be in the squad, who will make a last-ditch bid for inclusion and who will miss out, it is incredible to think this will be Paul O’Connell’s last appearance in an Irish shirt in this country.

We have known for ages that he is retiring from international rugby after the World Cup, that he is going to France and all that, but yet it seems as if this milestone, this end-of-an-era moment, has crept up on us and almost passed unnoticed.

He wouldn’t have it any other way. It would probably be more appropriate if this was a vital Six Nations finale, or perhaps a November run-up where due acknowledgement could be made of his vast contribution to Irish rugby.

But, in as much as he has always been able to orchestrate things on the field, you’d swear he had masterminded a low-key send-off where other issues have to take prominence.

And unlike a key Six Nations game where, let’s face it, all that really matters is the result, today’s clash with Wales will see the performances of all 23 scrutinised to such a degree that there won’t be time to get caught up in the sentimental stuff.

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That’s exactly as Paul would want it. Of the many attributes he possesses, perhaps the most laudable is that he is the ultimate team player. Everything, and I mean everything, is for the team. Everything he has ever done, in training, on the field, off the park, is solely geared for the team. And that doesn’t matter whether it is Young Munster, Munster, Ireland or the Lions; the team comes first.

Dave Kearney’s battle for a World Cup place is likely to go right down to the wire but he has a chance to impress against Wales
Dave Kearney’s battle for a World Cup place is likely to go right down to the wire but he has a chance to impress against Wales

Don’t get me wrong, nearly every player out there puts the team first but some do it to a level that leaves people in their wake. I think himself and Joe Schmidt are well matched in that regard.

I worried about them when Schmidt took the Irish job. You remember there was a bit of a spat after Paul caught Dave Kearney with a kick in a Munster-Leinster game. Joe had a pop off him, but in fairness to him, he was only doing what he felt he had to do as Leinster coach, notwithstanding that he was likely to become Irish coach.

So what does he do when he gets the Irish job? He makes Paul captain. With others that bit of a row could have lingered, created a bit of an issue.

But Paul and Joe are cut from the same cloth. All that matters is the here and now and what lies ahead. They will do what they have to, personalities and feelings are not the issue. The team is all that matters and they will do their duty.

You can see how the two of them have worked well together and that so much success has come Ireland’s way under their watch.

Paul made his 100th appearance for Ireland against Wales earlier this year. He won’t remember the day for that milestone, he will remember it for the fact that they lost. The team lost.

Today will be about putting in a big performance as we move towards the business end of this particular journey. A lot of the big guns are back. It is all about game-time now, whether that’s in the Aviva or those who will get the run-out for their provinces.

As always, a coaching team will talk it up about how they will be up all night making calls on the tight decisions. In fairness, they probably will give it the time but I think their minds are made up on nearly everything barring a few injuries entering the equation.

I don’t see many changes in the 31-man squad I selected a week ago.

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Probably the one call which might go down to the wire will be with Dave Kearney. I didn’t include him last week, opting for Simon Zebo instead. I think it is a battle between the two of them. Zebo sees no action this weekend for country or province. He can do no more. Is that telling us something?

Kearney, by all accounts, is flying in training. That counts with Schmidt, and so it should. Also, a player on a tight call who produces the goods against a full-strength Welsh side, three weeks out from the start of the World Cup, will probably get extra marks. Maybe Schmidt and his team will be skulling coffee all night, trying to finalise the 31.

It could be a sleepless night for a lot of players as well. Every single one of the 46 will be dreaming they will make the cut. They wouldn’t be there in the first place if they didn’t think that. Even the lads for whom things might not have gone well recently will believe they have banked enough on previous big days to get the nod.

Even the dead certs will breathe a sigh of relief when the word comes. It will be a momentous day for many of them. Take Robbie Henshaw, for example. He doesn’t have to worry about making the cut. He’s in the team, everyone knows that. Four years ago when the tournament was held in New Zealand he was a schoolkid, a teenager with big dreams. Tomorrow he can put another notch beside his achievements.

How many 17- or 18-year-olds up and down the country are right now saying that when Japan comes around in 2019 they want to be on the plane? Hundreds is the answer to that one, and probably one might actually make it.

For others it will be their second, third or fourth tournament; it is a huge milestone for each and every one of them.

And for those that don’t make it? Gut-wrenching. I have been there, so have many others. Look at David Wallace in 2003? You have to put on a brave face – aside from anything, you could be back in the next week if there is an injury, it happened to me in 1999 – but it is very difficult to accept being rejected at this stage. And whether a player is in or out, the celebration or the grief will be done in private. It may be the ultimate team sport, but moments like that are for the individual.

You hardly want to get caught hollering your excitement by a fella who doesn’t make it. And you hardly want the tears to be public, or go firing cups at the wall if the news is bad. Either way, you want a few moments to yourself. Finding that space can be difficult, What if your room-mate has made it and you haven’t? Or the other way round? It’s a bloody sensitive time, no doubt about it, and the sooner it is over and you move on the better for everyone.

I have no doubt Paul will be giving a huge reception on his final Irish appearance on home soil.

But perhaps the best possible tribute to him can be delivered on the field in the UK in the next two months. Now that would be the appropriate way to send him into the sunset.

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