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Paulie's not around to 'stare and intimidate', but otherwise a familiar feeling in Ireland camp

Sean O’Brien will be one of the core squad members aiming to make up for the absence of one of Ireland’s best ever players.

IRISH RUGBY IS now fully immersed in the post Paul O’Connell-era and at the start of a second week of training, Sean O’Brien has already noticed the difference.

It’s kinda good. He doesn’t stare at people and intimidate as much now.”

The flanker is only half joking. That intense stare, that intimidation was an invaluable tool through the years. The absence of the Limerick man means not only the loss of a class second row, but also the unquantifiable inspiration he instilled in players around him.

“It’s obviously different not having Paulie around with the type of player he is, but it’s up to other lads to fill that void and stand up and be counted.”

Rory Best is the new captain: shorter in stature, more quietly spoken, a different kind of leader to O’Connell. O’Brien forms part of a group of established leaders with a vital role to play in backing the hooker up, and he says that process has grown quickly since the squad gathered last week.

Despite this tournament coming a little over halfway through what, on the whole, has been a disappointing season for Irish rugby, players insist that confidence remains at the level you might expect of back-to-back champions.

Sean O'Brien and Paul O'Connell Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sunday will be O’Brien’s first game in green since the Pool D decider against France all the way back in early October. The following week, his “boo-boo” of a punch on Pascal Pape earned him a seat alongside the injured O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony. Argentina’s rampant win was a tough watch for every Irishman in the Millennium Stadium that day, but especially one who could have played.

Watching it back three months later wasn’t much easier.

“We obviously looked back (the Argentina match) to try and move forward. You have to learn from your mistakes. We had a look at that when we got back to camp, about where we could improve and tried to implement those changes at training. The lads got to grips with it very quickly.

“O’Brien adds: ”I don’t think we should be having anything other than confidence coming into this.

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Sean O'Brien Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“There’s a lot of excitement around the group, there’s a freshness about it. And, y’know, it’s a Six Nations, something to get excited about.

“Everyone’s looking forward to it and we can’t wait to get on the field at the weekend.”

Ireland v Wales is more often than not a meeting of enormous intensity with neither team very willing to loosen the grip and cut loose.

Momentum

World Cup exits always lead to demands for change, but aside from a new cap or two, the Tullow Tank isn’t predicting any great shift in the gameplan that took Ireland top of successive Six Nations tables and then their World Cup pool. They’ll have ‘license to play’, but the individual roles and responsibilities will be drilled deep into them.

An awful lot rests on the opening fixture. A Six Nations, perhaps more than any tournament, places a high value on momentum and nothing gets the ball rolling like a win on opening weekend.

Conversely, nothing would kill the mood around Ireland’s two home games in March like a loss to Warren Gatland’s boys ahead of tough trips to Paris and London.

“Yeah (it is a hard start) but there is no easy game in the Six Nations so I don’t think it matters,” O’Brien contends.
It is nice to start off at home and you have to start well to put yourself in the best position. Wales are first and foremost in our mind. That is all we are looking for and we will see where we are after that.”

“If you take your eye off the ball, you might get caught. It is about taking every opportunity that comes to us, working hard as a group and trying to stay focused.”

A hard stare, a little intimidation wouldn’t go amiss.

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Sean Farrell

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