O’Connell had another great game against France, and it turns out that he played half of the second half on one leg. He has been one of the three best players on the pitch for Ireland in every game thus far, and while some have raised a few questions over his decision-making as captain, his on-pitch performances have been of the highest calibre. He has been the standout second row in the tournament and has cemented his place as one of the best in the world – in The Mole’s list, there’s James Horwill of the Reds and Australia, Pato Albacete of Toulouse and Argentina and O’Connell of Munster and Ireland.
A great generation of second rows has departed the international scene in the wake of the 2011 World Cup: Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, the greatest second row combination of the professional era [and probably in the history of international rugby]; Big Bad Brad Carnegie Thorn, the dual-code legend who won every trophy for which he’s ever professionally competed; Simon “Give Us A Hug Shawsy” Shaw, whose international career spanned fifteen seasons; Aussie centurion Nathan Sharpe, and another Wagga-Wagga man, Scotland’s Nathan Hines, whose international career spanned eleven years and three World Cups.
O’Connell has butted heads with all of these players in the past, and while it’s not quite fair to say he’s the last man standing, he’s still going strong at 32 years old. If there was a union of international second rows, he’d be the chairman [O’Callaghan would be the secretary, doing the unseen work].
Having watched him go toe-to-toe with one of the new generation last Sunday, Toulouse’s enormous nipper Yoann Maestri, The Mole was looking forward to seeing O’Connell go head to head with his biggest competitor for the Lions No5 jersey for next summer’s tour, Scotland’s Richie Gray. The last time they played, Gray stole three of Ireland’s throws.
The time before that, back in March 2010 in the last match at Croke Park with Ireland complacently looking to secure a Triple Crown, Scotland took a huge chunk out of Ireland’s lineout, winning six against the throw on their way to a Dan Parks-powered victory.
Unfortunately for both Ireland and amateur Lions selectors, O’Connell is out. Connacht’s Mike McCarthy has been called up by Declan Kidney to replace him, although it seems more likely that Donnacha Ryan will be the one to swap in and get his first Six Nations start at the ripe old age of 28. That’s not a particularly big issue in itself, as second rows have the longest shelf-life of any position in international rugby, but the putative O’Callaghan/Ryan combination has rarely been tried even at Munster; and the one time it was given an outing in a high profile game, it was a disaster.
The first game of Munster’s 2010-11 HEC campaign was away to London Irish, and the two Donners got taken to the cleaners by Nick Kennedy and Bob Casey, so much so that Ryan was axed and Mick O’Driscoll was recalled to the team for the next three games until O’Connell’s return. The major problem was that Ryan was used to jumping at the front and wasn’t used to calling lineouts; despite O’Callaghan’s 270+ first class games as a second row, shorn of the comforting presence of O’Connell he was a passenger at lineout time. There are no solid indications that these problems have in any way abated. Ryan and O’Callaghan don’t really play together much, and the Munster lineout either hinges on Paul O’Connell or the canny Micko when O’Connell is absent.
At the weekend, Ireland will be going up against a Scottish lineout which is as good as you’ll find in world rugby. Gray is the obvious threat on opposition ball, but the spring-heeled John Barclay is a brilliant aerial operator as well. Playing with two de facto front jumpers, neither of whom are used to operating a lineout at even provincial level could prove to be a serious tactical failing.