Paul O’Connell’s status as one of the best second row players is set in stone.
The man of Limerick is regularly listed alongside the great of the engine room of the modern era – behemoths like Johnson, Eales, Pelous, Botha and Matfield – and is still deified in this country, where he was commonly referred to as ” Superman â, six years since he last played.
However, it always felt like in New Zealand one wondered what it was about when it came to O’Connell.
The people of Kiwi rugby are notoriously hard to impress – unless you have one on them, you never really earn their respect and O’Connell, like fellow Irishmen Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara in the 2000s and early 2010s, was never part of a team that defeated the All Blacks.
Indeed, while polite deference was generally given to O’Connell by the Kiwi media and the rugby public, the Irish striker who systematically caught their attention was Sean O’Brien, following huge performances against the All Blacks between 2012 and 2017.
O’Connell has faced New Zealand nine times, in 11 years, but despite coming close to Dunedin (2002), Hamilton (2006) and seconds away from glory in his last game against the All Blacks in Dublin (2013), the Munster man could never really mark his greatness in the New Zealand rugby psyche, simply because they always had the upper hand.
The Lions tour of 2005 did the most damage. O’Connell was part of Clive Woodward’s ill-fated expedition with a lot of hype around him after a few sensational breakout seasons with Ireland.
When it came to the Test series, however, O’Connell and fellow Irishman Donncha O’Callaghan were completely dominated by the savvy All Blacks pair of Chris Jack and Ali Williams.
It hurt O’Connell deeply, as we know from the detailed breakdown of the 2005 touring experience in his autobiography, but while he rebounded brilliantly to rack up trophies and personal honors over the years. The next 10 years, he was never able to exorcise his All Black Demons.
Could that change this weekend? When it was announced that O’Connell would be joining Andy Farrell’s coaching ticket as a forwards coach earlier this year, it’s fair to say the news received a mixed reception.
O’Connell’s position ensured that no one came out and denied the decision, but critics were undoubtedly cautious, based on a less than impressive coaching resume until point.
There had been stints with Munster Academy and Ireland Under-20s and a rough patch with Stade FranÃ§ais that seemed to suggest training might not be the best career path to follow.
So when Ireland came knocking on the door – offering O’Connell the striker position – the jury was out. What has happened since has not only transformed the Irish forwards but has also re-energized Andy Farrell’s tenure as head coach.
After suffering losses to Wales and France in their first Six Nations games, Ireland are on the path to steady improvement and, somewhat under the radar, have suddenly forged a series of six consecutive wins.
Suddenly Ireland has what Americans like to call “The Big Mo” and O’Connell has played a central role there.
The effectiveness of set pieces increased on his watch, as did the pace of the attackers’ work (something that defined his own game) while, with the training of blackout obsessive Joe Schmidt ringing in his years, O’Connell oversaw a pronounced and critical attack. improvement in the quality and speed of Irish ruckball.
This has been the key to Ireland’s expanding game plan, surprisingly good over the past weekend. Japan was mysteriously wrong, but its supine defense couldn’t hurt the quality of Ireland’s interaction or the attitude that fueled it.
O’Connell is overseeing a group of attackers who offer real hope Ireland can finally have a good cup at a World Cup.
Unlike other areas of the squad, not only do the squad have the right age profile, but they are also packed with footballers – a noticeable departure from the first lane caps of the recent past.
Looks like the penny has finally dropped as Ireland will never be able to physically dominate top teams when it really matters and keeping the ball alive and deep is the best way to break through claustrophobic and rushed defenses.
The team is Farrell’s, but the forwards are O’Connell’s and are starting to give off the kind of presence that sets their coach apart as a player.
More encouragingly, after a few tough seasons, James Ryan is once again starting to be part of a world-class second row. A very fit O’Connell player, losing to run-of-the-mill Adam Beard with the Lions must have stung Ryan, and he looks bigger, meaner and more mobile than before.
Whereas previously Ryan was a go-to transporter to run a few yards, now he’s looking to gain yards while trying to play the ball out of the tackle – a hugely significant change in mindset – and Ryan is starting to exude O ‘Captain Connell-esque qualities again.
If Ryan rediscovered his mojo, so did O’Connell – albeit in a different role than we’re used to. It’s hard to say where this is taking him.
There is talk of him in a head coaching role or partnering with O’Gara, but none of that will concern him this week.
For now, in the 10th pose, it’s about putting the All Blacks in their place.
Superman is coming back.