Monday 20 May 2019

Paul O'Connell: 'I think it is fair to say we can win the World Cup'

Captain hoping to follow up award-winning year with World Cup glory

Ireland's Paul O'Connell stretches during squad training. Ireland Rugby Squad Training, Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Paul O'Connell stretches during squad training. Ireland Rugby Squad Training, Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Paul O’Connell does push-ups during training at Carton House yesterday

Ruaidhri O’Connor

You'd have to be a bit concerned about the mantlepiece at Chez O'Connell as it lists under the burden of yet another award.

The Ireland captain added the Guinness Rugby Writers Player of the Year award to his collection last night, making it a 2014/15 double to go with the IRUPA gong he picked up last May and the Six Nations player of the tournament to boot.

The World Cup remains the last remaining prize international rugby has to offer before he goes trophy hunting in France and the landscape is becoming more and more amenable as the tournament approaches.

Ireland's rise to No 2 in the World Rugby rankings held little of his attention over the weekend, but the defeats suffered by New Zealand and South Africa in the Rugby Championship caught his eye.

Just as the big show is looming into view, the big two are showing cracks.

Read more: Andrew Trimble emerges as World Cup doubt

Ireland's Paul O'Connell stretches during squad training. Ireland Rugby Squad Training, Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Paul O'Connell stretches during squad training. Ireland Rugby Squad Training, Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

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The Munster lock is too experienced to make any outrageous statements, but, as he approaches his fourth World Cup, he is willing to admit that the competition is looking more open than ever.

"There are more teams than ever that can win the World Cup, more teams than ever that can beat each other on their day," he conceded.

"That's going to make it a good tournament, but it's also going to make it a tough tournament."

So, can we at least allow ourselves to include Ireland as one of the teams with aspirations of winning the Webb Ellis trophy?

"I think that's fair," he said. "There's no doubt that we're far from favourites going in to it, but we know that, on our day, when we are firing on all cylinders, that we can do damage to teams. The problem is that there are probably a lot of teams who feel the same way."

In contrast, Jamie Heaslip was far more effusive about his ambitions in a diary he penned online yesterday.

"At the core of everything, our greatest strength is that unwavering belief in ourselves," O'Connell's vice-captain wrote on theplayerstribune.com.

Ireland's Jamie Heaslip in action during squad training. Ireland Rugby Squad Training. Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Jamie Heaslip in action during squad training. Ireland Rugby Squad Training. Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

"Now let me make something clear: We're not going to England to get to the semi-finals and be knocked out. I want to win the damn thing!

"Yes, I know everyone wants to win the World Cup, but I'm not going to be satisfied with planning for anything less. I want us as a nation to realise our potential. Let's dream - or, more importantly - let's not be afraid to dream."

Whatever O'Connell dreams, he's not about to share it. Last night, however, he could reflect on a season of huge contribution to the cause in which he led Ireland to back-to-back Six Nations trophies.

That Championship success should stand to Ireland when they approach their third pool game against Italy on October 4, hopefully having comfortably accounted for Canada and Romania.

As they face the Azzurri, they will see a clear path to glory. Five games from heaven - just like a Grand Slam.

"It's harder again than a Grand Slam," O'Connell argues. "At the moment, though, there's no value in thinking that far ahead for us.

"The way we've worked in the last two and half years is being very short-term focused. Obviously, the coaching staff sit down and plan the long term and we're consulted along the way, but by and large the players' job is to prepare for what's straight ahead. We've been successful doing that, so there's no reason to veer away from it."

O'Connell is unlikely to make his return to the fold until the home game against Wales, but he says he is feeling fresh after a second successive pre-season.

"I feel great. Physically, I feel fantastic," he said. "To accumulate preseasons back-to-back is important, I haven't had an injury in a while and this is my third pre-season in a row.

"I've played pretty much 24, 25 games across the last three seasons, so you're always accumulating fitness and getting better and stronger.

"Mentally, I feel great. I've been up in camp getting full night's sleep away from the kids which is great! I've been well looked after and well managed so I feel great.

"The last World Cup was probably one of the most enjoyable preparations I've been involved in, but we didn't play terrifically well in the warm-up games. I think we lost twice to France, to England and to Scotland.

"So, from the point of view of the game (against Wales) at the weekend, it was a brilliant start - particularly for the first 60 minutes when the lads played brilliantly and they laid down a marker for the guys that are playing this weekend.

"It's been good, it's my fourth World Cup, so my fourth World Cup preseason and the longer it's gone on, the more you know what works for you and you try and focus on that.

"From that point of view, I've really enjoyed it, I haven't missed a training session or had to step out of a training session to rest my bones or anything.

"It's gone well, there's a good buzz here. There's a bit of disappointment with Tommy picking up an injury at the weekend, but that's part of the game. It's gone really well so far in terms of our preparation."

That is good news for Ireland fans, who know just how important the skipper is to the cause.

Last season, he appeared to grow in strength over the course of the international campaign, and gave a lung-bursting display in the defeat to Wales before scoring a try against Scotland.

However, the tournament marks the last days of a glittering Ireland career and he is determined not to allow anything distract him from the task at hand.

"I won my 100th cap against Wales and there was a lot talk about it.

"It became hard to avoid because I got a lot of text messages about it and things like that," he recalled.

"It is a distraction, you're under enough pressure as it is when you're preparing for a game in terms of what you need to learn, what you need to do, where you need to be physically and mentally.

"The end of my time playing is, well I wouldn't say it's irrelevant to me, but thinking about it isn't going to help my performance.

"I'm in a very good place and I don't want to change anything."

Read more: Andrew Trimble emerges as World Cup doubt

Read more: Murphy backing Jackson – but Madigan to get his shot

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