Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Rugby World Cup: Donncha well aware that history beckons Ireland

Donncha O’Callaghan was never going to be fazed by the increased level of media scrutiny at Ireland’s first press conference of quarter-final week.

With 70 Irish caps, two Lions tours, a Grand Slam and a couple of Heineken Cups behind him, the 32-year-old is well used to, and comfortable in, the spotlight’s glare.

And, even though yesterday’s briefing was a hectic affair, he has seen it all before.

What he has never seen is his country in a World Cup semi-final and that is playing on his mind ahead of Saturday’s showdown with Wales.

It led to the most potent pronouncement by any Ireland player at this tournament so far.

“To go home now would be gutting,” said the second row.

“But the big thing from our group of lads is that we're maybe about to do something that maybe will separate ourselves from Irish teams that have gone before.

“Other Irish teams have won Grand Slams, they've won Triple Crowns, and got to World Cup quarter-finals.

“This could be a chance for us to do something and maybe stand out on our own.

“People talk about the last few years being a golden generation. But what have we done that's separated us from the rest? If you're honest, not a whole lot.”

Powerful words about a side as decorated as this Ireland squad and O’Callaghan was similarly strident when asked about the ‘upset’ against Australia.

“Everyone thinks it is a massive surprise that we beat Australia but, to be honest, we don’t see it that way,” said O’Callaghan.

“We back ourselves to go out and put in a massive performance and we've done that.

“If you look at the Italian game, the last game of the pool was really tough for everyone and for us to get a 30-point win like that, you take great confidence out of it.

“But I always find the Welsh game the most competitive game,” he added.

“There’s always only a point or two in it and that can lead to bitter feelings after the game, there’s small margins in it and if you had done something a bit better you could have won.

“I’d say that’s why there is a bit of a rivalry — it’s good, there’s never any bad blood.”

It is clear that O’Callaghan enjoys playing the Welsh. He made his debut against them in 2003, won a Grand Slam against them in 2009 and, in 10 clashes, he has won seven.

His Lions exploits in 2005 and ’09 means O’Callaghan has experience of playing with and against many of the men in red this Saturday which has helped to foster a high degree of respect.

To the point that, in keeping with the pragmatic policy of pouring sugar on the opposition ahead of a quarter-final that is incredibly hard to call, O’Callaghan had half the Welsh side selected on a World XV yesterday — starting with his fellow Lions second-row Alun Wyn-Jones.

“You know you have to play well against him because he’s world class.

“I would never take it as a personal battle — you try and break it down into pack moments and hope that whatever you can do for your pack will have a knock-on effect and help get the result so I don’t see it as a head-to-head between the two sets of second-rows.”

What about Wales captain and open-side Sam Warburton?

“He’s been incredible, you’d put him up for World XV the way he’s going. He is up there with the likes of (Richie) McCaw and (David) Pocock when it comes to whipping your ball,” he said.

The Irish scrummaging effort has been one of the foundations for their progress at this tournament but O’Callaghan says Wales have a couple more world-class operators here also.

“It (the scrum) is another massive challenge playing against probably the best two props in world rugby,” explained |O’Callaghan.

“Gethin Jenkins is another player who would probably make any World XV and Adam Jones is a workhorse and his scrummaging is incredible.”

While such effusive praise is to be expected this week, it is clear the Irish are aware they are facing a formidable foe in Saturday’s quarter-final.

In this scenario, every psychological tool can be put to good use and coach Declan Kidney likes nothing more than pin-pointing a goal that has not been achieved before — in this case, a World Cup semi-final.

What have Ireland’s ‘golden generation’ achieved?

A great deal but, as O’Callaghan says, nothing to set them completely apart from their predecessors. Saturday provides that opportunity.

It is a timely call to arms.

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If Ireland were in any doubt that World Cup intensity has just gone up a level, yesterday’s press conference confirmed as much. It was jammed.

There were a grand total of 10 television cameras present to record the event, as well as a deluge of dictaphones, clicking cameras and chin-strokers.

It was all a far cry from that first Irish press conference in Queenstown more than five weeks ago which was made up of four Irish hacks, a couple of local stringers and one half-assed TV camera.

Like original followers of an underground band who suddenly make the big-time, it is hard not to roll your eyes and grit your teeth when the bandwagoners hop on board.

Particularly when you are trying to hear what a player is saying in a round-table huddle only to be tapped on the shoulder and bellowed at by a journalist who would be better suited to a job as a town crier.

“Who is he?”

“That’s Tom Court.”

“So, where does he play then?

“He plays prop, now would you ever shut the (censored).”

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