NEWS OF ANY other 34-year-old getting a central IRFU contract for a period of two years might be greeted with reservation, but not when Paul O’Connell is involved.
Following in the glorious wake of Sean O’Brien’s extension last week, this is another relief for those involved in Irish rugby. Despite his relatively advanced years, O’Connell is in his best form for some time and looks like continuing to be a key man for both province and country.
This is a deal that has long been expected, with little speculation linking the lock with a move out of Ireland at the end of the season. Still, to get it sorted before the Six Nations begins is a boost, allowing both player and coach Joe Schmidt to prepare with one less distraction.
Any discussion of O’Connell is likely to touch on his leadership, and rightly so. The 2009 Lions captain is back in the same role for Ireland since November, a move that was greeted positively by players and supporters alike. The fact that O’Connell stepped down as Munster’s official leader in 2012 has not diminished his influence there.
The Limerick native is an inspirational character, a player who refuses to give up whatever the situation or scoreline. Even when his team are leading, O’Connell’s work-rate rarely falters. It is difficult for us to judge how important his words are behind the scenes during training and pre-match but we do know how highly valued they are by his teammates.
Influencing referees is an element of the game where O’Connell excels too, although his effectiveness in that regard has been diminished for Munster slightly. With Ireland, he will continue to be a demanding voice in the officials’ ears and that can be vital in close games. On top of that, some of the illegal play O’Connell gets away with at the breakdown is remarkable.
With Joe Schmidt having acknowledged that there is “a need for a real depth” in the Ireland squad, it seems certain that he will rotate during the Six Nations, as well as using players off the bench in a pre-planned manner. With all those changes in motion, there will need to be anchor points for Ireland, players who provide a guarantee of consistent excellence.
O’Connell will be at the top of that pile. Any ‘transition’ of personnel requires a balancing wedge of experience and composure, with the Ireland captain providing exactly that in what is a crucial season for the international squad.
O’Connell runs at Richie McCaw during the defeat to the All Blacks. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.
Away from the mental skills that the Young Munster clubman brings to the squad, he is in superb form and is certainly one of the leading second rows in Europe, if not the world. His defensive qualities have been highly evident for Munster this season, particularly at the breakdown, where he gets into good positions ‘for a big man’ with regularity.
O’Connell’s tackling is excellent too, and he has highlighted the influence Dan Lydiate had on him during the 2013 Lions tour in terms of chop tackles. It is now common to see O’Connell targeting attacking players’ ankles and going in low in contact to get them to ground rapidly.
In an attacking sense, O’Connell has never been a world-class ball carrier, but he has improved in this area in the last two years. He is not the most explosive, although his willingness to charge around the corner and take passes from the scrum-half is important. The recent offload against Gloucester for his province demonstrates that he has skill too.
At re-starts, the 88-times capped lock is a valuable presence, both defensively and in attempting to re-gain possession. Again, we have a recent example of the latter to cite thanks to his excellent take of a drop-off in the build-up to James Coughlan’s try for Munster yesterday. Alongside Rob Kearney, Ireland need O’Connell to link with Jonny Sexton in this area more regularly.
Tying O’Connell to an IRFU contract means the second row will be intelligently managed over the coming two seasons, particularly with the 2015 World Cup in mind. While he really hasn’t played many games for Munster over the last six years [often due to injury], O’Connell has been present for the most important days.
That seems certain to be the operating philosophy for the Ireland captain in the future, ensuring that he is at peak performance level when he arrives into international camp. We have been presented with that situation this season, and O’Connell’s influence on the Six Nations will be crucial.