Ireland 9-20 England, Dublin, August 27
O'Connell backs Ireland to stop the rot
August 28, 2011
O'Connell claims a lineout during his side's fourth successive Rugby World Cup warm-up defeat against England in Dublin © Getty Images
Ireland lock Paul O'Connell is convinced his side can halt their alarming decline and return to winning ways at next month's Rugby World Cup.
A lacklustre build-up campaign ended with a 20-9 defeat to England at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday - their fourth straight loss and their sixth reverse in their last eight Test clashes. There was further woe in the form of a series injury to flanker David Wallace that has ruled him out of the tournament while prop Cian Healy and No.8 Jamie Heaslip are also major doubts for their World Cup opener against the USA on September 11.
The fitness of Jerry Flannery (shin) and Stephen Ferris (hand) was also being monitored last night, while Brian O'Driscoll (stinger) and Sean O'Brien (knee) could yet miss the start of the tournament. But O'Connell is adamant the World Cup is not a lost cause.
"Absolutely we can turn this around," said the 31-year-old. "It's been a disappointing four weeks but we're confident that when we get to New Zealand we'll be able to perform. We have an excellent squad and excellent players, there's no denying that.
"We may not have produced our best form over the last few weeks but I've no doubt we can perform in New Zealand. Guys are disappointed but morale won't be particularly affected by what's happened. With the experience we have in the dressing room and among the coaching staff, I believe we can produce."
Pursuing a punishing schedule of four warm-up Tests against such high-calibre opposition always looked risky at best, but has since proven to be pure folly. Losses to Scotland, France home and away and now England ensure the squad will be afflicted by self-doubt when they leave for New Zealand on Tuesday.
Thrashing England five months ago to deny them the Grand Slam is now a distant memory, but O'Connell insists recent events may even prove to be of assistance. "Beating England in March was good for us but it came on the back of a few disappointing performances and knowing what we needed to do," he said.
"We're probably back in that place now. We know what we need to work on. If the disappointment of the last four weeks puts us in a position where we can put things right, that won't be a bad thing. It was an attritional game yesterday. They got ahead early on and were quite dogged after that. Credit to them, they do that quite well and have done it quite well in the past. They were happy to live off our mistakes and errors and are good at that."
Another worrying development was Ireland's problems at the breakdown, where they were comfortably second best to England. "The breakdown is a good part of our game but every so often you need a reminder of where you need to be at," said O'Connell. "Yesterday was probably one of those for us. They put numbers in and hit us hard.
"A lot of it was illegal, but they got away with a lot of it. They gave away a lot of penalties and had a man in the bin, but they achieved what they wanted to achieve - they slowed down our ball. It was very effective for them and that will be an important eye opener for us heading to the World Cup. The breakdown is something we regard as a strength of ours."
In related news, Geordan Murphy has expressed his sympathy for Wallace have suffered a similar setback on the eve of the 2003 World Cup when he broke his leg. "It's a very hard place to be - the worst time to get an injury is just before you go out to a World Cup," said the fullback.
"It's a huge, huge disappointment. So much effort and work has gone into the last year. If you miss out then there's a dark cloud hanging over your head for quite a few weeks. David's a fantastic player for us. We do have options in the back row, but David will be sorely missed."
Only 10 days ago Murphy had accepted he would be spending September and October at Welford Road and not New Zealand - before fate intervened and an injury to Felix Jones opened the selection door once again.
"It's been an emotional roller coaster over the last two weeks. I've had it all," he said. "I was told last Tuesday week that there was no place for me in the squad. I played against Connacht on the Thursday and flew back to Leicester on the Friday with a view to playing that weekend.
"Due to injury on Sunday I was called back in and then because of an injury to Rob Kearney I was back in the Test team. There was a full array of emotions - from disappointment to elation and then back to disappointment with not getting the win against England.
"I was injured in January and the doctor said it would be very difficult to get on the plane to New Zealand. That was obviously my goal. I worked incredibly hard and had a lot of help. It felt like time was running out and two weeks ago I thought the sand had expired. I'm excited, I won't lie. I thought it was a lost cause and was chasing a lost cause for a lot of the year. I pulled out a lot of stops to get there."
Murphy produced a fine display yesterday topped by his try-saving tackle on England centre Manu Tuilagi, executed after outpacing his Leicester team-mate. "One of the boys said I did well to catch him, but I think he was just showing respect. He wouldn't have gassed his club captain to the corner!" he said.
"When he took off I didn't think I was going to catch him and that would have been pretty embarrassing. When I did catch him I thought 'I have to tackle him' and that's the second half of the battle. He could quite easily have thrown me into the stands!"
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