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Veteran Paul O'Connell has still got the drive for Ireland

By Niall Crozier

Ireland captain Paul O'Connell knows that he has more international games behind than before him at this stage of his career.

Now 34, the big Limerick native will be winning his 87th Irish cap when he leads the team out against Australia tomorrow night at the Aviva Stadium. But for injury, he would have been well through the century barrier by now.

"Even last week, you take for granted even popping into Rala's (long-serving Irish baggage master Patrick O'Reilly) room in the week of the Tests and how special those moments are," he admitted. "The bus to the ground, the Aviva. Those moments are going to be less and less for me now.

"There isn't as many ahead of me as I would have liked to have thought there would have been a few years ago. It definitely makes you enjoy it more, cherish it more.

"But the build up to the last few weeks has been great, the training has been good and it gives you a great vibe going into the last couple of years of my career."

The honour of leading an Irish side awash with players who have captained their country – Brian O'Driscoll, Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip, Peter O'Mahony – means a huge amount.

"I have captained my country at various times throughout my career, from when I was 24 for the first time and I have done it on and off when Brian's been injured," the 6ft 6ins lock forward said.

"I have done it with Munster for a long time and then on and off recently when guys have been injured, so it's something I'm familiar with, something I enjoy doing and hopefully we'll be successful."

Contrary to feeling threatened by having so many other experienced leaders around him, O'Connell sees that as being a huge plus.

"I think it's incredibly important," he said. "I think any team I've been involved in, with Ireland or Munster, has had people across the pack and across the backline who could have been captain. You can see it with other teams – it is very rare a young, inexperienced side wins big Test matches or tournaments.

"Throughout the team we have plenty of captains. We probably have guys who have ambitions to be captain as well and (we have) leadership, even a lot of the quieter guys.

"I think what Joe (Schmidt) wants is guys that will lead with their actions and you see that throughout the squad in the way lads prepare during the week."

Years of experience at the highest level have taught him what the role of skipper entails and how best to go about it. Vitally, he knows the importance of not becoming isolated.

"I think sometimes when you're in a young team and you're captain it can be a lonely place, but here it certainly isn't," he said.

"When you look across the team you have the provincial captains who are there, you have the former international captains. Then you have Sexto (Jonny Sexton), Eoin Reddan, Sean O'Brien, Rob Kearney – real experience and real leadership there as well.

"As a captain it puts you in a good place, everyone seems to know their role inside out here. You're not worried about anyone else, you're just worried about yourself."

With injury having sidelined him so much in the past two seasons in particular, it would be understandable if O'Connell were to feel bitter about that. He doesn't; instead he is philosophical.

"There is nothing you can do," he reasoned. "You pick up an injury and the worst thing you can do is get down about it because that sets you back even further. You're already in a tough place, you are out of the team environment, out of the match environment, out of the pressure build-up which really sharpens your game and sharpens any weakness you might have.

"Conditioning-wise, they really get exposed in training and in games and you get to work on them.

"So when you are injured you don't have that test of your ability every week and it can be difficult trying to stay trying to stay sharp.

"So the first thing you have to do is stay positive and realise there is nothing you can do about it and you just have to manage your rehab and your recovery and get back as quick as you can.

"And if there are a few weaknesses you can work on them. I had a broken arm so there were plenty of other things I could do and you just have to work on them.

"Unfortunately I have gotten good at it over the last few years! But that is all it is; people always ask when you get injured how do you react, but there is no other way to react – you have to stay positive and to realise it is part and parcel of the game and for us it is more part of the game than for others."

With 6ft 10ins Devin Toner having done an excellent job in calling the lineouts against Samoa, O'Connell smiled when asked who would be doing that now that he has returned.

"It' s a bit of a mix and match at the moment," he offered. "He (Toner) is very good at it so there are certain line-outs he is better placed than me to call so it will be a 'co-operative' effort."

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