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'Henry Shefflin would be playing first centre, Brian Cody would be in rugby'

Paul O’Connell regrets Ireland’s missed chance to raise the profile of rugby.

THE BIGGEST REGRET for Paul O’Connell about Ireland’s World Cup is not that he tore his hamstring clean from the bone, but that he and his teammates missed an opportunity to leave a major imprint on Ireland’s sporting consciousness.

Of course, those two things are inextricably linked. Had O’Connell and a few other key men been fit, Ireland’s chances of advancing into a first-ever World Cup semi-final would have been greatly increased.

Paul O'Connell O'Connell missed Ireland's World Cup quarter-final. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Instead, Ireland’s sporting public watched on as Argentina blew Ireland away in the opening quarter of their quarter-final, a setback from which Joe Schmidt’s side couldn’t recover.

It was far from the type of performance that youngsters on this island will dream of repeating.

New Zealand’s youth will go onto the rugby pitches imitating Dan Carter’s drop goal or Ma’a Nonu’s scintillating final try, practising their Sonny Bill Williams offloads and Richie McCaw-esque turnovers. O’Connell laments the fact that Irish kids won’t have similar strong memories to drive them onto rugby pitches in increasing numbers.

Hurling, football and soccer remain the most popularly-played sports in Ireland, and O’Connell feels that this World Cup was a huge opportunity missed.

“The shame of it is that we didn’t make a semi-final and possibly go further because I even see it on my road at home with my son and all his friends, they’re rugby mad after the World Cup,” said O’Connell at a PINERGY event this morning in Dublin.

But now, the soccer is back on now and they’re beginning to play a little bit more soccer and soon it’s going to be hurling and there’s going to be more hurling.

“People talk about New Zealand and their skill level and where they’re at, but the fact is to me that they are the Kilkenny of world rugby.

“Tony Buckley – who played with Munster – was on exchange in New Zealand when he was younger and he said they went out for 10 minutes at small break and played tag rugby, they went out for big break and payed full-tackle rugby and then they had rugby training after school.

“When we had small break and big break, we probably played soccer. In Kilkenny, they probably play hurling.

“I just think a New Zealander has probably accumulated hundreds, maybe even thousands more hours of rugby than an Irish kid has and that’s why I’m disappointed that we didn’t make the semi-finals, the final, because we probably would have changed a little bit of that and I just think it’s part of New Zealand’s culture.

Henry Shefflin celebrates his 10th All Ireland medal O'Connell would have had Shefflin at 12. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“The Kilkenny hurling team is something I keep coming back to. If rugby was our number one sport then Henry Shefflin would be playing rugby, he’d be playing first centre. The best brains in hurling in would in rugby.

“You’d have Brian Cody involved in rugby, and that’s what they have in New Zealand, and that’s what we don’t have up here. For everyone involved in rugby that’s the challenge, to try and make this game you want to see kids walking down the road holding a rugby ball.

“You look at that photo on joe.ie, balls.ie or The42.ie of the 150 hurleys outside mass in Kilkenny – that’s what rugby is to New Zealand and we need to try and bridge that gap.”


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O’Connell insisted that Ireland have been “punching above their weight” in competing with more established rugby nations, stressing that Ireland’s underperformance at this World Cup should not take the sheen off their achievements under Joe Schmidt.

The 36-year-old lock, who is now retired from international rugby, says this team is in a good place and argued that the talent is there for Ireland to remain extremely competitive.

I think the last two Six Nations have been incredible,” said O’Connell. “We hadn’t gone back-to-back in, whatever it is, 60 years. They are brilliant achievements. They created a brilliant appetite for rugby in the country.

“If we followed it up, who knows what could have happened? I think we’ll continue to improve, we’ll continue to produce players. I thought the Munster/Ulster game (last weekend) was one of the best provincial derbies I’ve seen in a long time.

“The skill level was excellent. There were mistakes made, but I thought some of the play was brilliant, some of the offloading. It just goes to show what we can do.”

Therein lies one of the keys for Ireland, the growth of their game plan to match the attacking abilities of the likes of New Zealand, Argentina and Australia. O’Connell believes the skills are there for Schmidt to harness.

That was not the formula for the World Cup, however, and with O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Jared Payne missing against the Pumas, Ireland came up well short.

Luke Fitzgerald, Rhys Ruddock and Rob Kearney dejected after the game Ireland came up short against the Pumas. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The opening 20 minutes is what O’Connell highlights about a game he was forced to watch from the stands. His frustration lies with the fact that Ireland failed to get linespeed in the manner other sides have done against the Pumas.

“There’s no doubt the Argentina game was disappointing,” said O’Connell. “When you look at how Australia played against Argentina there’s plenty of times when Argentina had numbers over and with (Scott) Fardy taking linespeed, (Australia) were just able to get up and cut it off.

“I think we didn’t do that in the game, especially early on. You have to defensively put teams under pressure and I don’t think we did that. It happens that way in games sometimes, a team can get quick ball three, four times against you and it becomes hard to get off the line.

The start, unfortunately, was a big disappointment. We were missing players, so you want to get out there and you want to start really well.

“I know whenever I’ve played with Ireland or Munster down through the years and you’re missing a few players, you want to get out and start really well and you know you’ll kick on from there.

“The start of the game was a big disappointment, it just gave the lads too big a mountain to climb, and that was really disappointing.

“To come off such a brilliant performance against France and not to back that up… you hear Steve Hansen talking about New Zealand trying to make sure they go from a great performance to a great performance.

“We really didn’t do that against Argentina and that’s what we needed to do. We probably needed to be better again, but unfortunately we were probably worse.”

Paul O’Connell, who is a shareholder in PINERGY, launched the new PINERGYsmart service. The service offers consumers a smart in-home display and a first-to-market mobile app which, combined, can conveniently help consumers use less and pay less for their electricity.

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Murray Kinsella

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