Ireland captain Paul O’Connell is set for an emotional send-off as he plays his final home game at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow, but he remains fully focused on his own performance and that of the team in advance of the Rugby World Cup.
It started against Wales back in February 2002 and it will end with Wales as Paul O’Connell plays for the last time in an Ireland jersey at the Lansdowne Road venue. Speaking after the Captain’s Run earlier today, he said that making his first start of the season is all that is concerning him.
“It’s all about this game. There seems to be a final everything for me recently…final game in Thomond Park, final game for Munster and I suppose it just drags on a little bit,” admitted the 102-times capped lock.
“Certainly with Munster in those last final weeks I thought about it a lot, but it hasn’t really bogged me down this week. It’s my first start (of the season), so it’s more about where I’m going to be in terms of my play and fitness. That’s where my mind is at at the moment.
“It’s still been two-and-a-half months since I last started a game, so I’m eager to get out and see where I am and put in a good performance rather than dragging on a long goodbye or whatever.”
He added: “It’s been a very enjoyable experience playing here in Ireland and playing in Dublin – in the Aviva and Lansdowne Road. It’s everyone’s dream, it’s every kid’s dream. When I play rugby with Paddy now, I have to be France or England because he’s always Ireland!
“It’s always been a dream for everyone to play for your country, so to play in the Aviva and Lansdowne Road as many times as I have and to have had so many great days is brilliant.”
O’Connell received a rapturous reception when he came on as a second half replacement against Scotland a fortnight ago, and he is sure to get an even bigger one tomorrow as he signs off at the home of Irish Rugby.
Scoring a try on his Ireland debut as a red-haired youngster more than 13 years ago is still fresh in the memory, but it is the more recent and much-cherished post-match moments with his young son Paddy that mean even more to him.
Asked about his best memories from home internationals over the years, the Limerick man said: “There’s plenty of them…the England game in 2007, but that was in Croke Park, winning the Triple Crown game (in 2004) (pictured above), the first one against Scotland, was an important day. It seems a long time ago now.
“Big November internationals, when we started regularly competing with and beating southern Hemisphere teams were important days. Particularly this year’s Six Nations where Paddy was able to come into the dressing room after games with me and hang around.
“I remember Claw (Peter Clohessy) doing that with (his son) Luke when I was ‘young’ and Claw was old! I’d say those two…we won two big games against France and England (earlier this year) and Paddy was in the changing room afterwards. They were the days I really enjoyed.”
The tables have certainly turned on O’Connell and now as an elder statesman of the Ireland squad, he has noticed that he is the victim of the good-natured jibes that another of his former team-mates, John Hayes, used to get.
“Constant abuse! I used to do it to John Hayes and I never thought I’d be that guy that was getting slagged about my taste in music and my taste in clothes and everything like that. If I could take those times back that I used to slag John Hayes I would, because I’m constantly on the back foot from all the lads.
But it’s good fun, I get on great with the lads, enjoy training and the matches more than ever. There’s still stress and pressure that goes with them, but I think I handle it better and probably enjoy it more than ever.”