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Saturday 18 August 2018

O’Connell: 'O'Brien has star quality'

PAUL O’CONNELL has identified Sean O’Brien as a player in "red-hot" form ahead of the trip to Italy for Ireland’s first of five matches in the Six Nations.

The fall of Jamie Heaslip (ankle) and Stephen Ferris (knee) has cleared the way for O’Brien to make his first Six Nations start as the most potent ball-carrier in European rugby.

“Sean is an excellent player. He is a hell of a ball carrier, a really good lineout jumper as well, which surprised me. I didn’t realise that about him. He has been having a great season,” admitted O’Connell.

“It is great to have form players. We have a lot of good players. But, you need those guys on form as well. That is what he is at the moment. He is red hot. Hopefully, it continues through the Six Nations.”

This Six Nations promises intrigue and heightened interest, given the lack of an obvious outright favourite this year. Ireland are plagued by injury. France were in disarray last November.

Back then, England blew hot and cold. Scotland looked to be on an upward curve. Wales were unpredictable. Italy were difficult to deal with at home. This all contributes to increased speculation and fascination.

MOMENTUM

“There is no standout team that looks like they are going to run away with it. It is a tournament that is all about momentum. You have to get off to a good start and anything can happen from there,” O’Connell said.

“In 2009, we came into it with confidence low after a poor Autumn and poor Six Nations in 2008. We got off to a good start and found a bit of momentum. The team that can do that is the team that will win it.”

Munster’s O’Connell has benefitted enormously from 74 minutes against Toulon and the full 80 against London Irish in the Heineken Cup. He is on his way back to full-match fitness.

“Rugby, more than any other sport, is very hard to train for. The contrast of mauling, tackling, wrestling on the ground for the ball, going into sprinting, to jogging, to jumping, to ball carrying is a very hard dynamic to replicate in training.

"It is when you come to matches that the work you have done begins to come through. It always takes three to four games for that to happen,” he added.

“The way the game is going, it is more and more physical. There is always going to be injuries. The teams that can manage that are the teams that are going to be successful.”

Italy coach Nick Mallett must be crestfallen at the news that his one world-class player, number eight Sergio Parisse, is a doubt due to a dislocated finger suffered playing for Stade Francais in the Top 14. O’Connell described him as “a wonderful player who could turn a game at any time” and the Italian management are confident he will play on Saturday. He is not their only weapon.

“They have an excellent pack. They take you on up front. They maul 50pc of their ball and, obviously, they have a strong scrum. It is always a tough physical game for us. It is never an easy one,” said O’Connell.

SIMILARITIES

There are strong similarities to be drawn between the Ireland of now and that of two years ago before the historical 2009 Grand Slam, in that form had been inconsistent and confidence was low the previous November. The main difference is that coach Declan Kidney was able to draw on a full squad back then.

“We are further down the track in terms of being a squad than we were two years ago. Injuries are never a good thing for the squad. “Steve (Ferris) and Jamie (Heaslip) are two of our best players and have been for quite some time now.

“I reckon it largely, mostly, won’t hurt the team. This goes to show what a position of strength we are in,” insisted O’Connell.

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