FRESH from rolling back the years against England in the Six Nations, Paul O’Connell is set to join fellow Limerickman John Hayes in Ireland’s 100-cap club when he leads his country against Wales in the Millennium Stadium in just over a week’s time.
The Munster and Irish legend admitted in an interview with the Limerick Leader this week that, in the lows of his injury periods – the most recent of which saw him miss almost six months of rugby in late 2012 and early 2013 – he doubted if he would ever reach such a significant milestone in his playing career.
“It feels great,” he said of the prospective 100th cap.
“I think with injuries a few years ago I never thought I would get there, the way things were going about three or four years ago. So to be getting there and getting there in a position where Ireland are going well is great.”
The towering lock, who has come in from universal praise among rugby writers for his performances in the championship this season – plus those in the Autumn internationals last year which saw Ireland win a clean sweep against South Africa, Georgia and Australia – took a lead from his head coach Joe Schmidt when asked about the team’s full potential with the possibility of a Grand Slam on the line over the next few weeks and a World Cup looming in October.
“I think you have to be realistic, we are a country with only four professional teams. Look at France – they have 22 or 23 professional teams. England have 12 or 13 in the Premiership - so it always a challenge for us and we do manage our resources really well and we are performing really well, but it is important for people to stay grounded – and we aren’t beating anyone out the gate,” he stressed.
“All the games we are winning are tight games, and it would have been very easy for those scorelines to be reversed. Even going back to the Autumn, we could have easily lost to Australia and South Africa if they had taken a few penalties early on.
“So yeah, I think managing expectations is important,” he added, while a slight smile played on his lips.
Despite the need to keep expectations among a rugby adoring public in check, Paul would admit however that the current state of Irish rugby was “incredibly exciting – it is great to be in this position with two games to go in the championship.”
After the game on Sunday afternoon in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, which Ireland won 19-9, the team, family members and backroom staff retired to the Shelbourne Hotel, where they were treated to an intimate and live performance by Limerick’s own Hermitage Green, a band in which former Munster and Irish rugby player Barry Murphy is a member.
“Hermitage Green played for us in the Shelbourne the other night, Barry came along and brought the lads which was great, a chance for us to spend a bit of time together, with partners and the backroom staff and all that,” said Paul, who was speaking on a visit to the St Munchin’s Community Centre in Kileely on Tuesday, where he was unveiling details of the Team Limerick Clean-up campaign, of which he is a key member.
“It has been great fun here – the funniest thing is the way everyone is plaguing JP for tips. No one wants to talk about the match, they all want to find out about Cheltenham from JP, who the winners are going to be. He isn’t giving anything away,” smiled Paul as JP looked on in the background.
“The deadline for this is March 23 and I would encourage people to get involved and who knows how big this could become in the future. There certainly isn’t anyone doing it in the country to the same level as we are going to be doing it.
“This is a chance for us to be quite unique and do it better than everyone else. Hopefully if we can continue, who knows where the numbers might go.” He said the message behind the TLC event, which is backed by JP, Limerick City and County Council, the Limerick Leader and Limerick’s Live 95FM, was a “simple one”.
“It is easy to understand and follow, you come out on April 3, Good Friday, you get your kids out, you get whoever out, your local club and it is three or four hours of cleaning up. It is a very simple initiative and people have bought into it,” he explained.
Asked about JP’s backing for the project, Paul said: “It just means it is done very well, it is marketed very well, I think there is so much goodwill towards him as well so you get a lot of volunteers involved and I think with volunteers you get a lot of very good work done. Obviously his contribution is massive.”