With his injury struggles now firmly behind him, Paul O’Connell is looking forward to leading Ireland out against Australia in Saturday’s GUINNESS Series encounter.
Having missed the start of the season with Munster due to the arm injury he picked up on the Lions tour, Paul O’Connell is eager for game-time as he prepares for his first start under new Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt.
“I don’t think I needed things to be freshened up. I’ve always had a leadership role in teams I’ve been involved in. I tend not to change much about what I say or do, whether I’m captain or not. It is nice to be captain,” said the second row, commenting on his nod for the captaincy by Schmidt.
“Joe’s a new coach with a very different way of doing things, communicating with the players and expectations of the players. Whether you like it or not, it is a new start. It’s an exciting time and I’m happy to be captain for this time.”
With Schmidt making six changes to the side that defeated Samoa 40-9, it is evident that the New Zealander is looking to create the strength in depth in the squad that has not been their over the last number of years.
Whereas under previous managements, the players could sometimes anticipate who would be named in the starting line-up, O’Connell feels that under Schmidt no player’s place is guaranteed.
“When we sat down for the team selection, in the past you would have been able to pick a lot of the team. None of the team would have been able to pick (this) team beforehand.
“It was only when Joe said it that we knew for sure who was playing. That’s an excellent thing for the squad. It drives standards higher and keeps the squad consistent.
“I think the injuries in recent years forced Ireland to bring players through. It’s the same as everywhere. When you give guys opportunities they tend to perform. The likes of Luke Marshall, (Ian) Madigan and Paddy Jackson wouldn’t have been around when I was there 18 months ago.
“They’ve come through now and are performing so well. That youthful enthusiasm and strength in depth at training keeps everyone sharp and improves things all-round.”
Having captained Munster, the British & Irish Lions and as a stand-in for the absent Brian O’Driscoll for Ireland, the captaincy is hardly a position O’Connell needs to grow into.
The Irish players can look forward to more of the ‘manic aggression’ which O’Connell instilled into the Irish players against France at Croke Park in 2007.
“Yeah (it’s enjoyable), but most of the time there is pressure with it. There are times when it is a tough job but there are plenty of times I’ve done it for Ireland. I’ve done it on and off for Munster recently and for a long time in the past.
“It’s an exciting time for Irish rugby – with Joe coaching and the squad the way it is. It’s an exciting time to be Ireland captain as well.”
O’Connell was part of the Lions tour in Australia before a fractured arm prematurely ended his role in the series, but he feels the Wallabies are a much-changed side since the arrival of Ewen McKenzie as head coach.
While Australia showed glimpses of their former glory against England and Italy, McKenzie stated that the breakdown and winning their own ball was what they were focusing on and O’Connell feels if the Wallabies manage to get ball to their half-backs, they will cause Ireland damage.
“It’s certainly a better team. They’ve a different philosophy as well. (Quade) Cooper has come back in and has been given the opportunity to play the way he wants to play – he is vice-captain as well so has that leadership role,” explained the Limerick man.
“If you see some of the tries they’ve scored in the last few weeks – particularly against Italy last week, and Argentina – when you play Australia you’ve got to be heads-up and be able to see what’s in front of you.
“If they can get quick ball to (Will) Genia, Cooper they’ll feel they can do damage. That’s going to be our job – to defend better than we did (against Samoa) at the weekend.
“To be a bit more alert, getting set early…we really need to defend well against them and to do that, the breakdown plays a massive role.
“They’ve had a really tough couple of months against some of the best scrummaging sides in the world. I don’t think it will be anything like the third Test in the Lions (tour). It’s hard to know what will happen on the day.”