Ireland captain Paul O’Connell is anticipating a ‘really tough battle’ with old adversary Jamie Cudmore when the second rows collide in tomorrow’s Rugby World Cup Pool D opener against Canada.
Paul O’Connell and his Canadian counterpart Jamie Cudmore, who captains his country in the injury-enforced absence of Tyler Ardron, will lock horns again at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday afternoon (kick-off 2.30pm).
Incredibly, for two players boasting 146 Test caps between them, the veteran forwards have never lined out against each other before on the international stage. O’Connell’s one appearance against Canada came in his native Limerick back in November 2008.
Of course, the pair have faced off at club level, most memorably during a Heineken Cup pool match at Thomond Park in December 2008 when an infamous bust-up saw Cudmore sent off and O’Connell dispatched to the sin-bin.
Like the 37-year-old Cudmore, O’Connell is appearing at his fourth Rugby World Cup – he is only the second Irish player to do so after Brian O’Driscoll – and he is relishing his personal duel with the Canadian talisman.
“He’s a terrific player and the biggest testament to him is to be in a club like Clermont which is one of the most consistent teams in Europe for the last eight, nine years and they can pick up the best players in the world, but he consistently commands a place in that team and seems to get better with age,” he said of Cudmore.
“He is a big hitter in everything he does, not just the tackle but in the carry and the breakdown – and he’s a big scrummager as well. Clermont are next in line in set pieces and he’ll bring all that nous to them, so it will be a really tough battle.”
The man known as ‘Cuddles’ to his team-mates will be a key figure for the Canadians as they look to end a disappointing run of form that has seen them lose eight of their last nine Tests.
Their head coach Kieran Crowley, a World Cup winner with his native New Zealand in 1987, commented: “Jamie has got a lot of experience in the Heineken Cup and on the Test stage and he has been in France for a number of years. He is one of Canada’s best known rugby players and he will certainly roll up his sleeves.
“I know he’s looking forward to it. He hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to captain, but he’ll be fine. It will also be an interesting battle between the two old warriors – Jamie and Paul O’Connell.”
O’Connell leads an Ireland team with 689 caps’ worth of international experience and an average age of 29. With his impending retirement from the Test arena, he is clearly determined to give it his all in pursuit of World Cup glory.
Asked about his emotions ahead of his fourth World Cup campaign, O’Connell admitted: “The excitement is just as high, massively. It’s probably very different when I went (to the World Cup) in ’03, I was a young guy and didn’t have any pressures that some of the senior players probably had at that tournament – certainly around the Argentina game and what qualification meant financially to the union and things like that.
“I went there (to Australia) having had a good summer in the tour of Samoa and Tonga and was delighted to get picked…really enjoyed the tournament and the senior players of the tour took on a lot of the pressure, but for me it was a very different experience to what it is now.
“Coming over from Ireland on Wednesday, we were like a bunch of guys going on a school tour…very giddy flight and bus trip to the hotel. The preparations have gone really well for the team and myself. I haven’t missed many training sessions, which is great.”
As the 35-year-old looks for his troops to deliver on the pitch, he knows what a lift it is to see so much green around the stadium. Given the proximity of the tournament to these shores, he is hoping for big Irish crowds in Cardiff and London over the coming weeks.
“One of the big things about four years ago at the World Cup was what the Irish fans provided for us in terms of atmosphere and support, which made it an incredible experience for us. It’s been similar in the Aviva (Stadium) in recent years and one of the big hopes for us is that they bring that over this time,” he added.
“The fact that there were so many people travelling down to Australia and New Zealand meant there was a lot of Irish and there was a big party atmosphere, which is one of the big memories of the tournament for a lot of the lads. Hopefully that can be replicated in the next few games.”