Ireland captain Paul O’Connell insists that beating England at the Aviva Stadium would rank up with the biggest scalps of the Joe Schmidt era. The 13-10 loss at Twickenham a year ago remains the only RBS 6 Nations defeat for Schmidt’s men to date.
Paul O’Connell has a played 11, won 7 and lost 4 record against England. His first appearance against England came in the 2003 defeat to Clive Woodward’s side that went on to win the Rugby World Cup later that year.
With so much riding on today’s result, O’Connell feels it would be a big achievement for Ireland to overcome an English team that he has a lot of respect for.
“It would be right up there with anything we’ve achieved. Beating England is always a big thing for Irish teams. I don’t think I’ve beaten an England team or a squad as strong as this one in my time playing for Ireland,” he said.
“I think this is the strongest that I’ve come across them in my career, so they will be right up there. They are a very big side, very powerful men, a big strong powerful bench as well. Stuart Lancaster seems to have created something similar to what we have here, in that there’s incredible competition for places.
“The likes of James Haskell has been waiting to get in there for a long time, and he’s gotten in there and he realises he needs to take his chance and he’s been excellent.”
O’Connell worked with Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, two key members of Lancaster’s coaching staff, while playing with the British & Irish Lions in Australia in 2013. He can see their imprint on the current England squad.
“(Rowntree and Farrell) are brilliant coaches and brilliant man-managers. They are very clever tactical guys as well, and I would say the players are really responding to and enjoying that. So it’s a combination of a lot of things that has put them in a really strong position.”
Three points separated England and Ireland in London last year and another close game is expected when the teams renew rivalries this afternoon. Emotions will run high and O’Connell is aiming to channel that into a winning performance.
“I think passion still plays a big role in rugby. You still have to play with passion and emotion, but also you still have to have your head screwed on from a discipline point of view. It’s a big emotional occasion and we’ll be drawing on that as much as we can.
“England have great strength in depth, they have been building that and they seem to have a great attitude throughout their squad. They have a great mentality and discipline, and they are really organised.
“It hasn’t surprised me they’ve done well, I thought they were harshly criticised in the autumn. That Wales game was a standard bearer for the rest of the competition and they really did set the standard there. We’ve obviously lost the last four in-a-row against them and that’s disappointing.”
O’Connell returned last year to face England having missed the two previous RBS 6 Nations meetings in 2012 and 2013. A well-worked Rob Kearney try gave Ireland a 10-3 lead early in the second half, but the hosts stormed back with an Owen Farrell penalty and a decisive Danny Care try.
Roll on a year and with Ireland the current RBS 6 Nations champions and aiming for their tenth straight win, their captain reckons they would not let such a lead slip now having developed and built up confidence under Schmidt.
“I would hope not. Looking at the France game two weeks ago, we probably did provide them with a few opportunities late in the game that maybe weren’t that clear to the naked eye, but we certainly gave up a few opportunities. Les (Kiss) would keep reminding us of that,” he added.
“I think we’ve gotten better since the New Zealand game, the end of the French game in last year’s Six Nations and the way we conceded a try in the South Africa game.
“We have certainly improved from there if you look at the end of the Australia game and the end of the French. But there is always room for improvement. Yeah, certainly we have grown but there is plenty more to go, as we are constantly reminded!”