Paul O’Connell: The Italian job

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David Hennessy was at the launch of the RBS Six Nations when captain Paul O’Connell told him that he and Ireland are looking no further than the first game against Italy in Rome

Last year’s dramatic championship win in Paris and a spectacular autumn series that saw Joe Schmidt’s team triumph impressively over both South Africa and Australia. Although they are currently ranked third in the world behind only the All Blacks and the Springboks, Irish captain Paul O’Connell says the panel are taking nothing for granted and there has been no talk of retaining trophy, just of beating Italy in their first game to get off to a perfect start.

Paul said: “I only found that (Ireland are favourites) out this morning. It’s not something we’ve spoken about or addressed the same as we haven’t spoken about the World Cup or the Six Nations championship itself.

“We came into camp over Christmas and I suppose you’re expecting a review of the autumn and a plan for the year ahead, we probably got a review of the autumn and a plan for Italy. I suppose that’s the way Joe goes about things and it’s just very much focused on the next game. I know it’s a cliché but that’s 100% the way it’s been and it’s been good for us, a good way of avoiding any distractions.”

The last time Ireland was ranked third in the world was ahead of the 2007 Six Nations, a disappointing campaign: “I think it’s just important not to get distracted with it. That’s something we’ve probably done. I don’t think, once since Joe’s taken over, we’ve really looked at the bigger picture. I’m sure they do it, the coaching staff and management in the background, but we had a week-long camp over Christmas and all we did was prepare our defence, our attack, our set piece for Italy. I suppose it’s just a good simple way of avoiding any distractions.

“I suppose that’s the beauty of the way we’ve prepared. We finished 5th two years ago and the preparation for this championship, in comparison to last year’s championship when we finished 5th, hasn’t been a whole lot different.

“You don’t get a lot of time together so I think if you start looking at the bigger picture, you tend to probably trip yourself up and you don’t prepare as well as you can for that first game. We’ve got a massive focus on the first game and trying to win that first game. That’s the way we’ve been preparing. There’s been no talk of the bigger picture or anything like that. That very short, narrow focus has been an enjoyable way to prepare.”

This will be Ireland’s first championship with their long standing talisman Brian O’Driscoll who bowed out with last year’s victory. Does it feel a bit strange to be without him? “It’s hard to play in an Irish team, certainly for me anyway I’ve been playing with him for so long, without Brian.

“There’s no doubt, there’s a loss there in terms of his leadership, in terms of how he played. Obviously he was a big game player, he produces big plays when you need them but it’s part of life, Ronan O’Gara retired, it’s part of sport and you have to move on.

“We did okay in the autumn without him and I thought the centres who came in did really well and they probably served a good apprenticeship under him, learned a lot from him and you could see that in the way that some of those guys have been playing this year. It is different and it is a change but it’s part of sporting life and you have to get on with it.”

Did the emotion that came with it being Brian’s swansong play a part in their success last year? “I think the way Brian is and the way Joe prepares as well, there wasn’t a lot said about Brian finishing because we were just very focused on the next game, I know that’s a cliché but that’s very much how it went and how we did it and that’s how we’re going about it again this year. I think the way Brian was, we didn’t pull on that a whole lot even though in the back of everyone’s minds it was there.

“I think it still plays a big role in rugby. It’s a tough physical game, passion and emotion can contribute to that and help that. We still put a big stock in that but you’ve to be able to combine the two, you have to be ready for that physical battle but you have to also be ready to be accurate and have clarity in what you want to do.”

Paul has commented that he may retire himself after the World Cup but asked if this championship will be his last, he says: “I’m not sure, I’m contracted until the summer of 2016 and I want to play in the World Cup and get to the World Cup in as good a shape as I can and I’ll see after that.

Italy have been improving for many years and are no longer a side to be taken lightly, as Ireland found out in 2013 when they were beaten in Rome: “I wasn’t involved in the game so I don’t remember a lot about it. Obviously we lost and I think a lot of boys that were involved in that game were bitterly disappointed. I suppose we were going through a bit of a period where we weren’t playing well. I think it was the same two years before that, we kicked a late drop goal in Rome as well so Italy are obviously very strong in Rome and they tend to be very strong in their first game in the championship as well.”

For more see this week’s edition of the Irish World – with our 6 Nations pull-out special and wall chart

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