When Ireland last produced a defining World Cup performance, Paul O’Connell’s team talk two days before the win over Australia was key. It was typically rousing, typically forthright, those who were there in that Auckland hotel four years ago declared it inspiring.
There was just one quirk: O’Connell gave his address with a blackened nose and cat’s whiskers painted on his face. The unusual punishment imposed by his team was the result of being caught on his mobile at dinner, but it was a sign of O’Connell’s influence that he was able to get his point across despite the make-up. He was a lion in pussycat’s clothing.
Four years on, today’s game against Italy marks the middle of the end for O’Connell. The 35-year-old moves to Toulon at the end of the tournament, and after the farewell in Ireland itself he has cut a relaxed figure around the camp. The players have teased him about how much sun-cream he will need on the Côte d’Azur but the general feeling is that O’Connell is enjoying himself and appreciating the time he has left.
Today we will see whether he is too relaxed. After what effectively amounted to two further warm-up games against Canada and Romania, Ireland begin their World Cup proper against the Azzurri before facing France next Sunday. This is the real deal, and Ireland need their captain more than ever, but he doesn’t want to get into that. Instead, he would rather talk about how the game has changed, and what happens next.
In a career that has spanned the start of the professional era to the present day, cat’s whiskers are a minor issue for such a leader as he contemplates his last hurrah.
“There’s been a change in mindset because it’s a knockout game for us,” he said. “I can’t remember a [previous] World Cup where we’ve sat as a group and watched all the games. That builds the excitement. I’m more excited than ever because there aren’t many more of them to come. I really enjoy the build-up.”
He added: “There’s a massive difference to when I started playing in terms of what we do. Even though we train way less than when I started, we would have done one 100-minute session twice a week, 90 minutes on Thursday and 45 minutes on Friday. [Now] we rarely go over 60-70 minutes so, even though we do way less, there’s more detail.
“Is it a better product? I don’t know, I think so. I think this World Cup has been pretty incredible to watch. Some of the lesser teams have played incredible rugby and improved their standards so much. There’s incredible players to watch so, yeah, if you go by this World Cup so far, I think it’s a better product.”
It’s a better product when O’Connell plays well, too. Ireland dealt with the departure of the great Brian O’Driscoll in part due to the fact that O’Connell was ready to step into the leadership vacuum with precious little fuss. Jamie Heaslip, who is almost certain to succeed O’Connell as captain, has some huge shoes to fill, but Ireland insist such worries can wait.
“Look, I don’t think Paul is slowing down any time soon,” says fellow lock Devin Toner. “He seems to just be enjoying himself. He is keeping his body in shape, is on top of his fitness and is 100 per cent driving the standards. He didn’t start against Romania last week but he was getting his tuppence in all right.”
Instead O’Connell wants to deflect attention on to others. He described returning Italy captain Sergio Parisse as “right up with any of the great players who have played the game”, but that applies to him too.
The pussycat is ready to roar.Reuse content