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Six Nations: Ireland ready to stand tall against Wales

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

One by one, the Irish squad have lined up and answered the question with the caveat "there's not a lot I can add to what has been said about Paulie..."

They have tried manfully, however, to pay tribute to their captain ahead of his entry into an elite club of Irish centurions, joining his old comrades John Hayes, Ronan O'Gara and Brian O'Driscoll.

Ulster's Rory Best hailed his leadership and work ethic, Devin Toner spoke about the rite of passage of playing against him, before undergoing a lineout education since packing down alongside the big Munster man.

Yesterday, it was the turn of the coach. Joe Schmidt's first move when getting the job was appointing Paul O'Connell his captain and their partnership has reaped huge rewards.

The perfectionist driving standards with a whistle in his hands is working in tandem with the man who asks his team-mates for more every day he takes to the training pitch. The result is an Irish side standing on the brink of a second successive Six Nations and a record 11th win in a row.

Both know that the veteran second-row can't go on forever and Schmidt said he hasn't discussed O'Connell's post-World Cup plans with his skipper, but in the here and now they are forming a formidable team.

For three seasons, they operated on different sides of a parochial divide and it all came to a head in 2013 when Schmidt took a strong line on the incident in which the Munster man escaped punishment for his inadvertent but dangerous kick to Dave Kearney's head.

Any danger that bad blood would seep into the relationship when the New Zealander got the top job dissipated quite quickly.

"The person I have come to know is exactly the person I thought he was from afar," Schmidt said of the 35-year-old former Lions captain.

"He has got incredible self-drive, is an incredibly intelligent man about the game, about particular aspects of the game. He is incredibly driven to improve his own performance and thereby leads others in doing that.

"That is what I have learnt even more. I suppose that has been confirmed to me in the period of time that we have spent working together over the last 18 months when I first started looking a little more broadly when I knew I was going to take the position and then since being in situ.

"It makes all the coaches' lives easier. He and Simon Easterby have a fantastic working relationship. They played and deciphered lineouts and deciphered aspects of the game when they were playing together and now to be doing it as a coach/player, that is a really positive aspect of it for us."

Even before the Kiwi took over, he set in train a process of building a leadership corps in the Irish ranks that would be durable and proficient when the heat comes on.

He began to groom younger members of the squad on the 2013 tour to North America and then integrated the returning Lions when they came into camp the following November with O'Connell at the head of the organisation.

That doesn't mean the Young Munster man takes everything on and his coach explained how he spreads the load.

"One of the other things is that Paul doesn't assume every leadership responsibility, he delegates and he encourages," explained the coach.

Schmidt continued: "It's a massive game for a whole lot of reasons. Obviously the amount of respect that Paul O'Connell has in the environment, and even Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy likely to be involved in their 50th caps," Schmidt said, before adding: "It's an opportunity to do what no Irish team has ever done."

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