O’Connell knows Ireland will face the best defensive lineout in the world in the Springboks

Ronan Kelleher and all the Ireland players have been blown away by the scale and strength of the Irish support

Paul O’Connell says he loves watching scrummaging sessions. In part this is because his work in the lineout drills is generally done. But judging by his beaming smile when the camera panned to the Irish coaching box in the Stade de la Beaujoire after the Irish pack scored off a catch-and-drive last Saturday against Tonga, he loves maul tries even more.

After going to the corner Ronan Kelleher hit Peter O’Mahony for a quick transfer to James Ryan on the ground, so shifting the point of the maul, with Bundee Aki adding his power at the tail, and they stayed patient before Caelan Doris scored.

“It was something the lads identified, that Tonga stay down in a lot of their ‘D’ and they hit you quite hard at the start, so we just transferred it,” said O’Connell. “And we had Bundee [Aki] in there as well adding a little bit of weight to the maul as well. It’s always great.

“It’s hard to score maul tries in international rugby. It’s a tricky thing to do. To be able to go to the corner and be able to grab one of those in a game is always excellent. You’re building generally when you end up five metres from the line. It’s on the back of a penalty already. You’ve already created something, so to be able to go to the corner and score something is great.”


James Ryan also maintained that Ireland had been “a little unlucky with a couple of things” the week previously against Romania. “So we didn’t reinvent the wheel or anything this week, we just trusted what we do well and it came off tonight. We’re delighted.

“We love getting a maul try, we love getting those tries as an Irish pack. We put some decent pressure on their lineout as well so we’re happy enough with how it came out.”

“Sometimes you don’t know exactly how it’s going to go, those little trick plays, but we drilled it well all week and it worked, so we’re happy enough with that. There was good variation as well. We had a couple of drives and peel, and obviously played off the top as well. It was good, so we’re happy enough with it.”

But both men are fully aware that they will be encountering the best defensive lineout in the world game in Paris next Saturday night against the Springboks. “Yeah, they’re probably the best in the world,” admitted O’Connell of the Springboks’ defensive lineout. “They’re pretty good, they’re pretty good, so it’ll be a good challenge next week.”

“It was one of our better performances for a while,” said Ryan. “I think it will give us confidence, but it’s a whole different level next week.”

“They play a big pressure game. Obviously they’ve a very strong set-piece; lineout and scrum, it’s kind of their DNA. Defensively, huge line speed, more pressure. They’re kind of a pressure-based team, they try to get after teams in as many parts of the game as possible. So our biggest challenge for a long time.”

The outside-in blitz defence has been de rigueur at this World Cup, but Ryan agreed that the world champions are “the masters” at it.

“Tonga came off the line hard but they are the best at it definitely. We’ve just got to be nice and calm when that pressure comes on. But it’s easier said than done, we’ll have to look at it during the week and have a pretty proper plan in place to deal with it.”

As well as the accuracy of his darts there was the added bonus of Kelleher looking as strong and fit as ever in what was his first Test start since the win over Italy last February. “I felt good. It felt good to be back out there again,” admitted Kelleher, and said the sharper lineout was the reward for hard work on the ground.

“The forwards did the job to make sure they were max drilled each time. It made our job a lot easier as hookers, just little things about hammering home our little detail here and there and sure we were max jump, max lift each time. That was kind of it.”

Kelleher was not of a mind to speculate on whether him being hooked at half time along with the props and Sexton was an indication that he will be starting against the Boks, but it sure looked that way.

Kelleher and all the players have been blown away by the scale and strength of the Irish support.

“It’s totally different to anything I’ve experienced before. It’s absolutely incredible. I suppose there is that sense of occasion, but while you’re on you focus on your job during the game. But you look in the stands and the majority are Irish. It gives everyone such a lift to see them. Obviously they’re very loud as well; we’re just taking it all in.”

Kelleher and the other 17 World Cup first-timers had been forewarned by the more experienced players that it would be like this. “It is about enjoying it, not getting spooked by the occasion. I can only imagine the game next week is going to be a step up again, but it’s a privilege to be on the world stage.”

Similarly Ryan has been amazed at the level of support.

“The support tonight was just crazy, wasn’t it? Crazy stuff. The colour as well, walking around. I mean, the expectation and level of support next week is going to be unbelievable.”

Ryan also agreed that there is a different demographic supporting the team at a World Cup.

“It feels different from a lot of Six Nations games. Not all Six Nations games because we do get great atmospheres there as well, but it does feel different from a lot of them. I think the colour is a big thing. Everyone is wearing green, I think that contributes to the atmosphere.

“Nobody leaves. You’re walking around and nobody has left their seats. It’s cool like, it is cool, and I think you’re right people seem to come from all corners of the globe for a World Cup. It’s just something Irish people do.

“We were walking around after and we were like: ‘This is mad stuff!’ And it is unbelievable. I’ve been watching the World Cup on TV and Wales get good support as well, but I think there are very few countries that match the level of support we get.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times