KNEE. BACK. BROKEN Arm. Calf.
Along with the obligatory bumps and bruises, these are the injuries that have afflicted Paul O’Connell since he last started a game for Ireland. The lock, who captains Ireland against Australia this weekend, led his country out at the Stade de France in March 2012.
He landed badly after a restart and badly injured his knee, missing the remainder of the season. He returned for two of Munster’s early Heineken Cup games before returning to the treatment room. A back niggle could not be resolved so invasive procedures [surgery] were needed.
After a New Year’s Eve operation in Dublin, O’Connell set his sights on returning in time for Munster’s Heineken Cup quarter final with Harlequins. He made a try-scoring return against Connacht before inspiring his team to an away victory over ‘Quins at The Stoop. Defeat came to Clermont in the semi-finals and his old mucker, Ronan O’Gara retired at the season’s end.
O’Connell was named in the British & Irish Lions squad an excelled in the warm-up games before contributing to a first Test win over Australia. He finished the match out with a broken arm but his tour involvement, as a player, was over. O’Connell stuck around Down Under and became a de-facto member of the coaching staff.
The arm injury delayed his comeback for Munster until late September but he made strong showings in home wins over Leinster [league] and Gloucester [Heineken Cup]. He was denied extra game time when a grade one calf strain saw him withdrawn from Munster’s squad for the away date with Glasgow Warriors.
Joe Schmidt set him a training deadline with Ireland and, as it was only partially met, he started on the bench against Samoa. Jamie Heaslip captained the side in his stead but O’Connell is back, fit and ready to lead again. Australia are in his immediate sights but the goal is to lead Ireland towards the World Cup in 2015.
O’Connell said, “It’s been a frustrating couple of years. I’ve been a long time out of the Ireland set-up but it’s great to be back.”
“The squad has changed dramatically since I was last involved, 18 months ago I think… there’s a lot of depth in the squad now and depth in leadership. We have a lot of guys that are provincial captains and former Ireland captains in the squad.”
Asked if he was aware Saturday’s game will be his first Ireland start alongside Brian O’Driscoll since the World Cup defeat to Wales in October 2011, O’Connell said he unaware of the factual tidbit until this week. “Any time we can have Brian O’Driscoll on the field is excellent.”
For Irish rugby supporters, and O’Driscoll, the feeling is mutual.
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