Colm Kinsella talks to Paul O’Connell as the World Cup looms large on the horizon
HE must have been the fittest six-a-side soccer player in Limerick this summer sporting a heart monitor while he showcased his skills with the round ball, but Paul O’Connell was anxious to ensure that he returned to pre-season training with Ireland in decent shape.
A severely curtailed playing season which saw him make just 10 appearances in all for Munster, including three as a substitute, because of injury, had the talismatic second row eagerly looking forward to the season ahead.
It will be 10 years next month since O’Connell joined the professional rugby ranks as a raw recruit with Munster having just made his name with Young Munster in the AIL. The 31-year-old has packed quite a bit in during the intervening years and the next 11 months promise to be hugely significant with a World Cup looming large on the horizon and Munster facing a critical season in the province’s history in the professional era.
After a season somewhat blighted by groin and later ankle injuries, O’Connell admitted he kept himself more active physically during his recent summer break than ever before.
“On the break this summer, I have gotten to the end of the season in previous years and made sure I did as little as I could during the four weeks off. This time round I probably did more than ever before,” Paul O’Connell revealed.
“I played a little bit of six-a-side soccer a few nights a week which was great for fitness. I put on a heart rate monitor and ran as hard as I could. When I was on holidays there was a rowing machine in our hotel. I did a bit of rowing and tipped away. Really I had a good appetite for it. I had not done a whole lot.
“I had done very low mileage this season and as a result had a good hunger for training, even when we went on holidays.
“At the time I picked up the ankle injury in April, I thought I may not make it back for the end of last season. In fairness, the physio, Neil Tucker, did a great job. He said we won’t make any decisions on it for seven to 10 days. Ankle injuries can tend to pan out very good or very bad after a week. You never really know until a week passes by. After a week, it was improving quite fast. He was quite confident. I had hoped to get back a bit sooner, but it was great to get back and be able to play a part in the end of the season.
“Towards the end of June, we had our first week in camp in Carton House when we came together as an Irish squad. We had a week of planning, meetings, and training.
“For the last week and a half we have been back down in Munster doing an Irish training programme but still in with Munster, knocking around with the lads and training with them. We are up to Carton for three days this week and then back to Munster for a week before we have five weeks in Irish camp in Carton House before we head off to the World Cup.”
The All Blacks build up to the World Cup has been somewhat overshadowed in recent weeks by the decision of their management team to ban their players from using the social networking site, Twitter during the course of the competition.
All Blacks on Twitter have ended up in hot water in the past.
Cory Jane and Neemia Tialata got in trouble with New Zealand team management in 2009 when they tweeted they had not been selected to play England, before the team was named officially.
O’Connell doesn’t envisage any such ban on Twitter within the Irish camp.
“We have an intelligent group of players. Staff and management talk to guys quite a lot about these things and the threats they pose,” O’Connell explained.
“We actually discuss it quite a lot ourselves. I don’t think we have ever had a guy writing a controversial article or putting anything controversial on Twitter. I think we have a clever group of guys who tend to use Twitter to have a bit of fun rather than to make big statements. If you have guys looking to make big statements through social media or articles you have trouble on your hands. For our guys they are not trying to make any big statements with it.
“The coaches explain how guys can get themselves caught up in the wrong situations. After that they trust them. If you don’t trust adults to behave responsibly you are losing track a little bit. The Irish staff and management trust us not to be recklessly using Twitter or Facebook or articles.”
After 10 years as a rugby professional with Munster, a 75-time capped Irish lock and Lions captain, O’Connell is an instantly recognisable figure wherever he goes. But the trappings of fame which goes with being a top class rugby international is something he has grown accustomed to.
O’Connell explained: “It is not a bad thing if someone is asking you for your autograph or photograph, so it is not something that bothers me. Around games, sometimes, when there is a lot of people there, you may need up refusing someone an autograph which you don’t like having to do but you are trying to keep your mind on the job.
“By and large, me in Limerick and around Munster and Ireland, I get people coming up to me who are nice, very positive. It has always been complementary and nothing ever bad.
“It didn’t happen instantaneously. You have a slow build up of profile. This stage I’m at now, I’m used to it. When I’m out with the family people tend to be very respectful. When they do ask for a photograph or autograph they are very polite. It has never been a problem for me.”
While public expectation of how Ireland may fare in New Zealand this autumn may not be as high as 2007, the victory over England on the final weekend of the RBS Six Nations Championship provided a significant confidence boost for players, management and fans alike.
O’Connell said: “Before the England game we had become very focused on what we were doing technically and maybe moved away from what made Irish teams good. We played with a lot of heart and passion and that.
“It was one of the things a few of the guys were saying during the week. The week, of a game like that, when our backs were to the wall as a team, a lot players were saying things and I was no different. I think that day is where the Irish team need to be. Technically we were excellent, but mentally and physically we were excellent too. Throughout the Six Nations we didn’t put it all together at times. Hopefully, going forward to the World Cup and summer tests we will be where we were for the England game.
“Since four years Leinster have won the Heineken Cup twice and we have won it once. We’ve won a Grand Slam and had a lot of players go on a Lions tour. There are a lot of good, young players coming through. For all the team, what has served us well, is taking one game at a time.
“It really helped us the season we won the Grand Slam. It helped us to be successful. That is the attitude we will be taking into the summer tests and World Cup. Asking what would constitute a good World Cup for Ireland is a good question. I think we have to be playing at a level approaching our top level every game.
“We need to be going out there and really producing, high intensity and high physicality performances where we are technically good as well. There is no point in us making big announcements. I think for us being successful in the Grand Slam was more about taking it one game at a time.
“If you start talking about what constitutes a successful World Cup you are looking well beyond your first game. Hopefully, we can win it and move on from there.”