Paul O’Connell is confident he can play through any lingering effects of his chest infection against Wales in the RBS Six Nations tomorrow and admitted he was “embarrassed” by his last-minute withdrawal from Ireland’s 28-6 victory over Scotland last weekend.
The influential Munster lock made a full return to training yesterday after sitting out Tuesday’s session entirely.
Coach Joe Schmidt had no qualms about pitching the 34-year-old back into his Ireland line-up to face Warren Gatland’s Wales, with Gordon D’Arcy replacing Luke Marshall as the only other change.
O’Connell completed a course of antibiotics yesterday and expects to be at full speed for tomorrow’s pivotal Dublin showdown, despite suffering flak from former Ireland team-mates on last week’s absence. “I’ve just got a little bit of a cough left, that’s all,” he said. “It’s a bit embarrassing really. I’ve copped plenty of slagging from the old-school players I’ve played with for years. I’ve just finished a course of antibiotics; I’ve played matches on them before, so I don’t struggle with it at all. You almost wish you’d had something worse than a chest infection.
“I’ve worked hard to get into a position where I could play in the Six Nations, so to miss out on the first game was frustrating and disappointing. But I think you have to have respect for your team-mates as well, particularly the second-row. Dan Tuohy has been playing great this season and Iain Henderson had been in camp all week. I really didn’t think it would affect the team in a big way and I thought I might write myself off for this week if I did play.”
O’Connell admitted it was an easy decision in the end to put the team first last weekend and step back to allow Ulster lock Tuohy to start. Anticipating a fearsome tussle against Wales, he said: “I was asking myself that during the week, whether if it were a Grand Slam decider would I try to play. But I think you still have to have respect for your team. The body wasn’t right, and there were two guys there who were right and ready to go. From that point of view while it was frustrating and disappointing, it wasn’t a difficult decision either.”
Italy subdued Wales at the scrum last weekend, Martin Castrogiovanni getting the better of Paul James in the eyes of the officials, but Gethin Jenkins returns to shore up Wales’ front-row tomorrow, with O’Connell expecting a completely different complexion at the coal-face from the visitors after their troubles last weekend.
“The scrum is just a very difficult thing to predict from week to week,” said O’Connell. “I know ourselves we had a poor day against Australia in the autumn. We struggled to deal with them.
“Italy have an excellent scrum and also Wales have made a change there in bringing in Gethin Jenkins, who is a very experienced player and a very experienced scrummager. I know it’s an area where we can do well though, and we just want to play off quality ball for the backs from our scrum.
“A lot of these fixtures are one-score games, so you need to score in the last quarter, in the closing stages if you want to get a result. Hopefully, with our fitness levels that we’ve shown throughout the year, and the quality of the bench, we can do that.”
Meanwhile, Schmidt says the rumbling fallout from Gatland snubbing Brian O’Driscoll on the Lions tour will not derail Ireland’s bid to see off Wales. Gatland was widely criticised after omitting centre O’Driscoll from the Lions’ decisive final Test in Australia in the summer. The Lions blasted to a 41-16 victory, with Gatland feeling entirely vindicated at selecting Jonathan Davies at outside centre.
Ireland’s most-capped player O’Driscoll conceded it was hard not to hold a grudge in the aftermath but both men have moved to play down continued frostiness between them in the build-up to this crucial showdown and Schmidt said the fuss has not even registered among the Ireland camp this week.
“Certainly the match and a good performance is far more important for Brian and everyone internally,” said Schmidt. “It’s a non-issue for us, to be honest. It’s something that happened over the summer, there’s a lot of water under the bridge since then I think they’ve both known each other for a long time, I know it’s not a distraction for Brian and it certainly hasn’t been evident that it’s been a distraction for anyone else. It’s just about trying to get as well prepared as we can be in the windows that we’ve had.”
Ireland team to face Wales:
R Kearney (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster), B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney (all Leinster), J Sexton (Racing Metro), C Murray (Munster), C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross, D Toner (both Leinster), P O’Connell (capt), P O’Mahony (both Munster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Subs: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Moore (all Leinster), D Tuohy (Ulster), T O’Donnell (Munster), I Boss (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster).