MUNSTER (soon to be Toulon) and Ireland star Paul O’Connell has been named the Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the year for 2014/15. He was honoured at the awards dinner last night in the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin, which was hosted by Rory Sheridan of Guinness, Damien O’Meara and Michael Corcoran, Chairman of the Rugby Writers of Ireland.
Rory Sheridan, Head of Sponsorship for Diageo, Western Europe said;
“Guinness are delighted to support the Rugby Writers of Ireland and help them host these awards each year. It’s been another brilliant year for Irish Rugby, with both the Irish men’s and women’s teams claiming their respective Six Nations titles, an outstanding achievement by both sides.
The awards serve as a great opportunity to acknowledge those in Irish Rugby who are giving so much to the game.”
The unanimous decision saw the Ireland captain win the award for the second time. Below are O’Connell’s thoughts on the prize, the World Cup and his trip to France.
Congratulations on winning the Guinness Rugby Writers Player of the Year award for the second time…
It’s a great honour. I’m delighted to receive it, we had a very successful season with Ireland winning the championship, so I suppose I’m capitalising on a lot of other people’s hard work.
It’s a team effort, but somebody has to stand out and it must say a lot about your wonderful relationship with the media that it was you…
I don’t know about that! It’s good to finish well in these tournaments when it comes to awards like this and to score the try against Scotland [in the last game] is a very rare thing so it probably that putting me to the front of their minds because if I’d scored early in the championship I wouldn’t have been thought of at all. But it’s a great honour, there a lot of very clever rugby people writing about the game in Ireland and I’ve been at the awards night as Irish captain and as a winner before and it’s a great night. We’re delighted with their support and I’m delighted with the award.
Lots of pressure going into the World Cup after winning back-to-back championships…
There’s lots of ways to look at it, we’ve been quite good at playing under pressure in recent years mainly because we don’t get distracted by the enormity of some of the games. We have a big focus on what we’ve got to do each week and the pressure is almost more on knowing your role and performing your role than there is on the bigger distraction of the game or the consequences of the result. That’s one of the ways we’ve been quite good at performing under pressure in recent years. With the distraction of a World Cup, maybe because I’m a little bit older, it’s very much in the back of my mind and the back of our mind, we’re just preparing for these games week to week. We’ve been out of rugby for a little bit, we’ve been out of international rugby for a long, long while so there’s certain things you’re asked to do in the game that you have to prepare for really well and you just have to focus as much as you can on that which avoids the distraction of the bigger picture.
Result of Wales game has added to the energy of the squad…
We talk about pressure it’s probably in terms of places and selection that group has laid down a marker to the rest of the squad. This week, this preparation week before the Scottish game is going to be massive for whatever team takes to the field to face Scotland. It’s results like that at this time of year are a good thing, they raise the bar, they put the onus now on the team that plays on Saturday to prepare 100 per cent to the best of their ability to deliver in terms of accuracy, in terms of detail that the group last Saturday did.
Tommy O’Donnell’s injury, you must feel for him…
The thing with Tommy is, and I know him a long time, it took him a long time to break through at Munster. He’s a great example to any young player to just kept his head down, he’s worked his socks off and when it comes to training and when it comes to his lifestyle – the other 20 hours away from the training field – Tommy would be the ultimate professional in that regard. That’s one of the reasons everyone feels for him because it’s recognition of how hard he’s worked. The shape he was in was phenomenal, he’s a special type of athlete, he played incredibly well against Wales but that’s the game and the sport. I spoke to him yesterday [Sunday] and he accepts that it’s part and parcel of games, sometimes you’re unlucky. He’s a tough rehab ahead of him but there’s no doubt he’ll be back.
Ireland are up to No 2 in the world rankings, does that make any impression on you or the group?
Unless the pools are being drawn for the World Cup any time soon it’s irrelevant for us. It’s one for the fans more than the players other than that period when the seedings are done. All those things are a distraction, it’s about us working as hard as we can for the day you’re in at the moment and doing as well as you can and it avoids the distraction of the world rankings.
Fourth World Cup for yourself, is there anyway to gauge how the team is doing just by your preparation?
They’ve all been very different. Last World Cup was probably one of the most enjoyable preparations I’ve been involved in but we didn’t play terrifically well in the warm-up games. I think we lost twice to France, to England and to Scotland, so from the point of view of the game at the weekend it’s a brilliant start, particularly for the first 60 minutes of the game where the lads played brilliantly and they laid down a marker for the guys that are playing this weekend.
It’s been good, as you say it’s my fourth World Cup, so my fourth World Cup preseason and the longer it’s gone on the more you know what works for you and you try and focus on that. From that point of view I’ve really enjoyed it, I haven’t missed a training session or had to step out of a training session to rest my bones or anything. It’s gone well, there’s a good buzz here. There’s a bit of disappointment with Tommy picking up an injury at the weekend but that’s part of the game. It’s gone really well so far in terms of our preparation.
How are you feeling, physically and mentally?
I feel great. Physically, I feel fantastic. To accumulate preseasons back to back is important, I haven’t had an injury in a while and this is my third preseason in a row and I’ve played pretty much 24, 25 games across the last three seasons so you’re always accumulating fitness and getting better and stronger. Mentally, I feel great. I’ve been up in camp getting full night’s sleep away from the kids which is great! I’ve been well looked after and well managed so I feel great.
Have you thought about or talked to anyone about how to go about the closing stages of your Ireland career?
I think it’s a distraction. I won my 100th cap against Wales and there was a lot talk about it and it becomes hard to avoid because you get a lot of text messages about it and things like that. It is a distraction, you’re under enough pressure as it is when you’re preparing for a game in terms of what you need to learn, what you need to do, where you need to be physically and mentally. The end of my time playing is, I wouldn’t say it’s irrelevant to me but [thinking about it] isn’t going to help my performance. I’m in a very good place mentally and physically and I don’t want to change anything.
What do you make of the Rugby Championship and how those sides are playing?
There’s been some fantastic rugby played and at some really high intensity. They’re in a different situation to us where they’re coming off Super Rugby into Test rugby and it’s been impressive rugby, very physical rugby and it just shows where we have to get up to just to be in a World Cup. There is no doubt, even when you’ve a period off and a preseason, that there is nothing better to sharpen your skills or your mindset than playing against southern-hemisphere sides and they are getting that big advantage.
Australia seem to have a bit more about them in the forwards, the All Blacks look impressive, where do you rate these guys as contenders?
New Zealand will always be the front runner. I think they gave up two of the softest tries they’ll ever give up last weekend and I can’t see that happening all too often again between now and the World Cup. Obviously, Australia have had incredible potential for years and now Michael Cheika has really brought it forward. They’ve brilliant talent from 1 to 15 and all across their bench too. We see the likes of the guys who came off the bench at the weekend, they’re getting better and better but the teams like the Fiji, Tonga, Samoa they’re all spending time together now that they don’t usually get. Argentina are benefitting from their time in the Rugby Championship and we saw that in their first ever win over South Africa. The potential of teams that can win it and do damage is increasing with every World Cup.
So there are more teams than ever that can win it?
Yeah, there are more teams than ever that can win the World Cup, more teams than ever that can beat each other on their day. That’s going to make it a good tournament but it’s going to make it a tough tournament.
Is it fair to include Ireland in that wider group of teams who can have ambitions to win it?
Yeah I think it’s fair. There’s no doubt that we’re far from favourites going in to it but we know that on our day when we are firing on all cylinders that we can do damage to teams. The problem is that there are probably a lot of teams who feel the same way.
Once you hit the Italy game it’s like having to win a Grand Slam from that point on to win the World Cup, that must show how hard it is?
Yeah it is, but harder again than a Grand Slam. At the moment though there’s no value in thinking that far ahead for us. The way you’ve described it, there’s no value in us looking ahead like that. The way we’ve worked in the last two and half years is being very short term focused, obviously the coaching staff sit down and plan the long term and we’re consulted along the way but by and large the players’ job is to prepare for what’s straight ahead and we’ve been successful doing that so there’s no reason to veer away from that.
Have you been guilty of looking too far down the line in the past?
Yeah, and if we have it’s been because that’s what you did. That’s what we felt was the best way of preparing, at the moment the best way of preparing has been very short-termist and getting ready for what’s directly in front of us. Not thinking too far ahead of that.
Now that you’ve left Munster the old guard is gone, how will Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony handle the task of making it their team?
I think they’re incredibly well equipped in terms of experience and ability. You look at Conor, he’s been on a Lions tour experienced other coaches, they’ve both been in the Ireland set-up and worked with Joe Schmidt who’s one of the best coaches in the world. They’ve a great depth of experience but they’re two very level-headed guys as well and they don’t get too ahead of themselves when things are going well and don’t get too down on themselves when things are going bad. I think that’s important because you have to maintain a happy medium. In terms of experience, knowledge and playing ability they’re in a great place to drive on the Munster team.
What do you make of Peter captaining Ireland and Munster and such young ages?
Peter’s been captaincy material since he’s been 18 or since I first met him. He very quietly goes about his business, he’s everything you want in a No 6; he’s aggressive, he’s a brilliant carrier, a very powerful man, takes a lot of pressure off other people in the lineout so he’s a fantastic player and he has a great career ahead of him. I met him first [at Munster] after we won a match with Ireland and he was 18 and he came up and shook hands with the guys who had been involved in the Irish game which I thought was nice and quietly confident as well.
You’re obviously hugely invested in Irish rugby, what’s it like to see indigenous guys like Anthony Foley, Leo Cullen and Neil Doak getting their chance?
There’s been a great period of success in Irish rugby with the provinces and the international team in recent times. I think part of that is that we’ve been very good at using our resources and we’ve been very clever in how we’ve prepared and played. I think the players have played a big role in that, I think you’re looking at these guys who may not have all the coaching experience, but have a fantastic experience of what it takes to win trophies at provincial level and it’s great to see them being brought through and getting the opportunity. It gives great hope to other Irish coaches coming through that when you do knuckle down and prepare that those opportunities will come.
Mike Prendergast and Bernard Jackman are having success in France also…
I think Irish players and coaches have a great reputation around Europe for how they play, how they prepare and for how tactically aware they are. I suppose that’s reflected in plenty of those guys who’ve played throughout the 2000s having jobs now.
Is coaching in your own future?
It does appeal to me sometimes, other times not so much. It’s a very tough lifestyle and very hard to balance if you’ve got a young family. I think that’s the biggest challenge of the job, it does interest me and I’ve a little bit of playing in me yet. I’m getting closer and closer all the time and I’m preparing for it [retirement], when you get into your 30s it’s something you’ve got to keep thinking about but I wouldn’t say I’ve made any hard and fast decisions yet.
Will any French you’ve learned so far help in the final pool game against France or is it harder to learn than Afrikaans?
I’ve done a little bit of French, I did a bit in school and I’ve been doing a small bit for fun in the last couple of months but I don’t think in the white hot heat of battle I’ll be able to understand a word. I was there on holidays in the summer and I had to get people to slow down, so I think when you’re 60 minutes into a Test match and you can barely breathe I don’t think I’ll understand a whole lot that they’ll be saying.
Also on the night, Sophie Spence picked up the Women’s Player of the Year after an impressive campaign in the second row for her country. The Old Belvedere and Leinster player played an integral role in the Women’s National side winning the Women’s 6 Nations title last season.
On receiving the award, Spence said:
“It’s something you can only dream of. I didn’t think I had my best performances this year, but I really enjoyed it and it’s come as a big surprise when I see the other players who have won it like Claire Molloy, Lynne Cantwell and Niamh Briggs so it’s fantastic.
It’s nice to see our forwards getting the recognition, too. Our pack has had a lot of continuity in the past season which helped us deliver real consistency so this award is as much about the forwards as anything else.”
Lansdowne FC was voted Club of the Year after an impressive season at all levels culminating in the AIL title as they beat last season’s winners Clontarf by a single point in a pulsating final at the Aviva Stadium.
The Tom Rooney Award was awarded to Fred Casey – Fred has been involved in Cork Con since 1964 and has been credited with the development of sixteen Ireland Internationals and four British & Irish Lions. Fred has also coached a huge number of current and former Munster players.
There were two players inducted into the Hall of Fame on the night;
Tom Grace – Grace won 25 Ireland caps between 1972 and 1978, including eight as captain. He led Ireland on the tour to New Zealand and Fiji in 1976 as well as gaining Lions selection on the most celebrated tour of all to South Africa in 1974 where he scored 52 points and made 11 appearances.
Dave Hewitt – Hewitt was capped 18 times for Ireland (during which time he scored 1 try, 2 conversions and 3 penalties), and played in 6 Test matches while on tour with the British Lions to Australia and New Zealand in 1959, and South Africa in 1962. His personal points tally for the New Zealand matches came to 112.