10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
It's something that Paul O'Connell acknowledges and something that the Munster squad tap into. It's also has to do with the unwritten contract between team and supporters - it's understood that neither will let the other down.
It's six years now that they have been putting their hands in their pockets, fighting for tickets and travelling wherever. It's not lost on the players and there have definitely been days when they've gotten us out of it, says O'Connell.
He puts much of what followed down to the situation in 2000. Munster supporters love the underdog and that year you had the likes of Strings (Peter Stringer) and ROG (Ronan O'Gara) coming through - a lot of young fellas that hadn't been capped. Then there were players like Gaillimh (Mick Galwey) who were coming to the end of their careers. So it was a wonderful era for Munster rugby and while we may not always have the underdog tag, it's something Munster thrives on it. There's a brilliant mix involved some of which has to do with the whole Limerick rugby tradition and the Cork GAA thing. When they come together, they are the best supporters in the world. They are proud supporters and proud sports-people.
O'Connell reckons, without denigrating previous Munster teams, that this year's team is the strongest they've had. We've more guys involved with Ireland, there have been changes to the set-up that have improved things and many of us are better players than we were back then. We've more experience, but by and large we're still young. Then you have the few signings that have been made and in particular the likes of Cully (Christian Cullen) and Shaun Payne.
The expectation is huge now, but that expectation is huge for us as well. I read recently how the All Blacks are always expected to win but that's why their standards are so high. It's reasonable to have the expectation that an Irish province will win the European Cup despite the fact that it's getting tougher and tougher to win each year. It's not as if we haven't come close.
While the Heineken Cup is the holy-grail for Munster, the 2005 RBS 6 Nations also looms large on the horizon for O'Connell and many of his Munster team-mates. And then of course there is the small business of the Lion's tour to New Zealand in May.
O'Connell's recent form has been nothing short of excellent and the win over South Africa gave him far more satisfaction than the victory over England at Twickenham in the 2004 Six Nations. England was great as well but, for me, beating South Africa, the Tri-Nations champions, was fantastic. I've never been on a team that had beaten one of the big Southern Hemisphere nations.
O'Connell is a thoughtful guy with a natural intelligence. So naturally he dismisses the comment made by Clive Woodward who listed him, amongst others, as a potential Lions' captain. Sure, he named every home captain and quite a few other possibles as well, laughs O'Connell.
However, many feel O'Connell is a racing certainty to be on the plane to New Zealand in May given his past performances, his leadership qualities and the fact that he is one of the best second rows in the world. But O'Connell won't be drawn too much on what may or may not happen. It's a bit surreal at times to be mentioned in connection with something like that. I'd just love to go on the tour. I just hope to stay fit and play well, taking every game as it comes.
O'Connell has been described as the complete modern second row, drawing praise in the past from the doyen of international second rows, Martin Johnson. Ever the perfectionist, however, he still sees plenty of room for improvement.
I kind of do a lot of things ok but without doing them very well. In terms of defence, my tackling technique needs to be improved. I also need to get more yards out of my ball carrying and then after that my lineout defence can be erratic. It can be very good sometimes but then it can be a struggle against other teams. Of course we'd all like to be more powerful and fitter. In terms of my footwork, well it's never easy for the big guys. It's a wonder how he gets picked for any team really!
As a kid, he was considered obsessive about a number of sports. While he did take up rugby as a 12 year old, he gave it a break for four years returning to it at the age of 16. But he wasn't stuck for things to do and he particularly enjoyed swimming, basketball and golf.
As his already enormously impressive career enters one of the years that will almost certainly define it one thing is for sure - nobody will be working harder making himself the best that he can be. With the grace of God, of course.
In an interview with Adrian O'Farrell from the Irish Rugby Yearbook 2005 (Availlable in stores and on www.irishrugby.ie for 8)