O'Connell and Ireland feel the buzz again

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The Independent Online

If Paul O'Connell is to be believed, a pause for reflection in monastic silence will be over when the Ireland squad gather tonight to complete their final fortnight's prep for the Six Nations. "There were a lot of characters gone from the camp last Wednesday evening," said O'Connell, the Munster lock and sometime Ireland captain. "It was quieter on Thursday morning. These guys were leaders and now it's up to others to make their mark."

The cull which removed the long-serving Guy Easterby, Reggie Corrigan, Shane Byrne and Denis Hickie may have reduced the decibel level, but O'Connell says the squad are "buzzing now and looking forward to the championship". The party certainly has a fresher look than for a long time. "We've got some good exciting young talent and I'm trying to work our game in that direction," said Eddie O'Sullivan, the coach. After missing the Grand Slam last year - it was supposed to be Ireland's year, according to many - and losing somewhat tamely to New Zealand and Australia in the autumn, O'Sullivan is full of the joys of the imminent spring.

A big reason for that is the return of his "two talismen": O'Connell, the 26-year-old who is likely to win his 30th cap against Italy next Saturday, and Brian O'Driscoll. The shoulder that O'Driscoll mangled with the Lions last June is mended; the thumb O'Connell broke in September is healed. "They're on top of their game and they're back with a vengeance," said O'Sullivan. "I suppose my greatest wish is to keep them back."

Talismen come and go; garlanded with laurels one moment, sent on their way with a rugby wreath the next. O'Connell came along at a time when Mick Galwey, Peter Clohessy and Keith Wood were retiring and taking with them their indefinable heft of on-field presence. The pace of change has accelerated this season with Corrigan, Munster's captain Anthony Foley and Byrne elbowed out of the pack, together with Hickie and Girvan Dempsey from the backs. The back-rower Eric Miller has retired from Tests.

There is new blood in the Munster hooker Jerry Flannery and Andrew Trimble, the Ulster centre, among others. Leinster and Munster have just qualified for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, and memories of Ireland's defeat in last season's final match in Wales are fading. Ditto the Lions tour, which crocked O'Driscoll, did very little for O'Sullivan's coaching CV and even less for O'Connell's predicted emergence as these isles' next Martin Johnson. "It's six months later and I can't be bothered talking about line-out calls back then," says O'Connell.

And why do so when the rugby fraternity famously find solace even in the pit of despair? O'Connell was at a fundraising lunch in Cork on Friday for the Lions Trust, which looks after injured and disadvantaged former players. The great and the even greater of Irish rugby were there: Syd Millar, Ronnie Dawson, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Donal Lenihan and O'Sullivan; Willie John McBride and Wood spoke. A Lions jersey signed by all 22 surviving Munster Lions was auctioned for €8,000. A presen-tation was made to the Wallace brothers, Richard, Paul and David (the last of whom has just been recalled) by three Lions of the 1950s, Mick Lane, Jim McCarthy and Michael English.

It put a smile on the face of O'Connell, last seen in the Test arena twisted in anguish and anger when a mixed-up Lions line-out presented a try to the All Blacks in Christchurch. "I'd have loved to have stayed for a few beers," O'Connell said of the lunch, which is estimated to have made €45,000. Instead, with his fellow forward John Hayes at the wheel, it was back for a weights session yesterday in Limerick - scene of the bone-rattling hurry-up they and the rest of Munster gave Sale a week ago.

"Munster and Leinster have had a good couple of weeks, and that picks you up," said O'Connell. "Now you want to make sure players like O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy and Denis Leamy do what they do with their provinces."

Can Italy expect the same treat-ment dished out to Sale's Sébast-ien Chabal, the Frenchman bulldozed 20 metres by O'Connell and a snorting Munster pack? "It wasn't really a big tackle," O'Connell said. "Once you're back-pedalling it looks worse." Better, nevertheless, to be on the front foot. And that is where, albeit against the odds, O'Connell and Ireland might just be.