PAUL O’Connell’s game revolves around an incredible appetite for physicality and forcing one’s way on opponents, but the Ireland captain admits that the modern-day obsession with analytics plays havoc with that.
Now 34, O’Connell turned down a move to French side Toulon in the week leading up to his side’s Heineken Cup win over Edinburgh, and showed in that game on Sunday just how valuable he remains to Munster. The Irish province are developing a more expansive style of game under Kiwi coach Rob Penney, but it is still founded on rugged Munster forward dominance, ‘no-quarter-asked-nor given’ style of rugby that can sometimes allow braun to overcome brain.
If you were to pop your head into the Scotland or Ireland team rooms this week, you would invariably find players staring at laptops. They are analysing their opposite number’s recent games, how units have performed, lineouts, kicking strategies, what moves they have preferred, and even, believe it or not, down to which shoulder particular players like to tackle with so that they can target the other. It’s head-wrecking for most of us, but in an encouraging sort of tunnel back to the rugby most of us are familiar O’Connell admitted it can be for players too, especially at a time like this in Ireland when a new coach in Joe Schmidt, with new ideas, has taken over.
“A lot of the things Joe wants us to do, from a Munster point of view anyway, are slightly different,” O’Connell explained. “So it’s about trying to make those things second nature now, because the more you have to think in rugby, certainly up front, the less physical you are. If the things you’re trying to do are second nature then the more chance you have of being able to do them with the maximum physicality and I think three or four weeks into working with Joe by the time we played against New Zealand we were in a much better place in that way.”
That game could fall one of two ways when it comes to the psychology of the Irish next weekend. There should be a confidence boost, one would have thought, for producing a performance that New Zealand acknowledged could and maybe should have resulted in a final Test defeat, but to get so close to a historic first-ever win over the All Blacks – we are not alone in Scotland with that record – and the agony of letting it slip in the final seconds is bound to leave mental scars.
O’Connell is hopeful that another week of training will allow the positives to dominate any negative memories, but is also asking his players to remember how they threw it away and ensure lessons are learned.
“There are a lot of things from that game that we’ll bring in, and a lot of things from the last 30 seconds or minute that we won’t bring with us,” he said, without a smile. “There are a few things Joe wants that we have to work really hard at making second nature in our game and one of the exciting things probably for Joe and for me, as a captain, is the amount of work being done when we first came into camp for the Six Nations, with guys really eager to get to know their roles as quickly as they could so that they could execute them with as much physicality as they can. It was difficult to get on a laptop and do some review work last week, and that’s guys trying to re-learn the stuff from the autumn that came together really well in most of that New Zealand game, and that’s good to see.”
As for Scotland, there is an obvious mental scarring associated perhaps with the Edinburgh players who will make the now-familiar trip across the Irish Sea at the end of this week, only, thankfully perhaps, stopping short of Munster and staying in the east of the country. The 38-6 demolition in the final Heineken Cup pool match was an indication of how O’Connell’s team-mates ‘screw the nut’ when there is something serious at stake, as in a home quarter-final tie, and their ability to clinically dispose of a side not wholly mentally and physically attuned.
Greig Laidlaw will be eager to shed that memory when he comes up against Conor Murray, as might Grant Gilchrist if he was to feature against O’Connell again. But the Irishman is keen that the Munster players leave that memory in Limerick. “I don’t read much into that result to be honest because we had a home quarter-final to play for and Edinburgh didn’t have that,” he said. “It’s two different teams really.
“Scotland are a massive side with power all across the back line and in the pack. The second rows of Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray are two big strong guys and athletes, and we only have to look back to last season where we lost to them at Murrayfield. We were well beaten as well really, but there’s not a lot of point in either side looking back to that. This is a unique game and it’s going to be a tough game.”
O’Connell has signed a lucrative contract, of course, but it is still estimated to be almost half of what Toulon offered, so how is this for warming the heart of those who fear that loyalty is something rugby lost when it turned professional?
“Look, I wanted to stay. I’ve been with Munster all my career and we have developed well over the years.
“We’ve got a really good set-up but I just think there’s not many Irish people who can be professional sports people remaining in the city they were born and grew up in, and play for the club that they supported.”
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE