Ireland will not be “distracted by the bigger picture” of chasing Test records and the RBS 6 Nations Grand Slam in Cardiff on Saturday afternoon insiststo Paul O’Connell.
Captain O’Connell admitted his competitive spirit has underpinned a 13-year Test career as he gears up for his 100th Ireland cap against Wales in the Millennium Stadium (2.30pm).
Ireland can set a new national record with an 11th consecutive Test victory this weekend, and move within touching distance of a first Grand Slam since 2009.
O’Connell believes Wales will pose a bigger threat than England offered in Ireland’s 19-9 Dublin victory of March 1, so will fall back on boss Joe Schmidt’s now well-versed routine of shutting out the weekend’s wider context.
“It’s very hard to keep winning: if you focus on a match-winning record or you focus on a championship, then you get distracted from what you need to do,” said O’Connell.
“When we jog out onto the pitch tomorrow, it’s either going to be their kick-off or our kick-off and you’ll have a job to do.
“And you just keep trying to repeat all those little jobs, trying to win as many of those little moments as you can, and that’s all you can do.
“I enjoy that way of preparing, I know Joe prepares all his teams like that, but it’s probably something I’ve only stumbled on in recent times. But it does avoid you getting distracted and it does avoid you suffering from maybe the pressure of the bigger picture.
“I think England are a great side but I don’t think they played well against us and of all the teams Wales, later in the championship, playing at home in the Millennium Stadium - we’re going to come across a great side tomorrow that are probably going to play great as well,” added O’Connell.
“That’s going to be a bigger challenge I think than England, given the performance they produced two weeks ago.”
O’Connell’s Ireland peers have hailed the talisman Munster lock as better now than at any point in his career, despite his advancing years.
The tight-five enforcer will equal Mick Galwey’s record as Ireland’s oldest captain at exactly 35 years and 145 days this weekend.
O’Connell admitted experience has helped him hone his approach, but conceded his sheer will to win has kept him in the sport.
“I’m very competitive, that would be my biggest strength,” said O’Connell.
“I certainly can’t run over people or unlock defences with my footwork, or whatever, but I’m certainly very competitive.
“I enjoy being part of a team and helping drive teams on, trying to make them successful and trying to get the best out of people. I’ve always enjoyed a leadership role whether I’ve been captain or not.
“It’s part of my personality that’s featured in my rugby for most of my career.
“And that probably has helped sustain my career, it’s never been a chore for me.
“I think that happens to some guys maybe towards the end of their careers, but I’ve always enjoyed it and I still enjoy it.
“I enjoy it more than ever and that’s probably one of the reasons I’m still playing.
“I think there’s certain things about my game that continue to improve.
“Physically I’m probably not where I was, but that’s the challenge I suppose - to try and get to where I was when I was 25 or 26.
“I’m probably not there at the moment; I think there’s still work to do in that regard.
“But there are other parts of it. I think experience certainly counts. I think it’s something you don’t have a lot of respect for when you’re young, but there is a lot to be said for it.”
O’Connell scored a try on his Test debut, against Wales in the 2002 Six Nations.
The seven-cap British and Irish Lions lock partnered Galwey that day, but cannot even remember scoring as he had played on after being knocked out.
O’Connell pledged to park the nostalgia to face Wales though, prepared to look back on his career highlights at a later date.
“It’s obviously a great honour, but it’s obviously something you look back at in time rather than dwelling on it now,” said O’Connell of joining Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes in Ireland’s century club.
“I think in some ways, your first cap is probably a more nerve-wracking experience I suppose.
“I’ve been through it before, but it is a great honour and it’s a nice little group of Irish guys who have done it before that I’m joining, so I’m very honoured.”