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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 25 April, 2019

'I've got a great love for this place. I don't think I can do it justice, but I love it, absolutely f**king love it'

Johnny O’Connor is in his third spell with Connacht and ahead of today’s Pro14 season-opener, explains why he has always been drawn back to Galway.

THE SMALL THINGS that make a big difference in performance. The one percenters. They’re easily done, easily botched, easily forgotten, and ignored by some. Master the basics continuously, and results will come. 

Johnny O'Connor Connacht strength and conditioning coach Johnny O'Connor. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Four days to go. Galway on a late summer morning stolen from June, the sun beaming off the surface of Lough Atalia as the city wakes in tranquility. The west in its purest form, at its lustrous best. Home is where the heart is for Johnny O’Connor, and you can see why.

“I’ve got a great love for this place,” he says. “I love it, absolutely fucking love it.”

More on that later. For now, in his current guise as Connacht’s senior strength and conditioning coach, he doesn’t have a lot of time to reflect or look back, rather work hard in the present and constantly plan for what is to come, ensuring his players are ready for those challenges.

Now in his third different spell at his home province, it feels like O’Connor has always been part of the furniture here. Yet he hasn’t. Time away in England with Wasps and then at the start of his post-playing career with Arsenal has given him great memories and eye-opening experiences, but absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder.

“Yeah, this is the dream job,” he smiles, looking out over the Sportsground. “I’m always just attracted back to this place, the west of Ireland. I’ve had a love affair with Connacht really. Just love it here.”

Over the pick-pack-pock-puck of early-rising workmen hammering and drilling, and the hustle and bustle of ground-staff busily cutting strips and painting lines on the pitch for the season-opener, O’Connor has arrived for work shortly after 9am having made the short journey from home.

In his second season on the club’s backroom staff, it has been a long summer of early mornings, and late nights, but as the players begin to escape the clutches of pre-season purgatory and are rewarded with the substance of competitive rugby again, much of the legwork has been done.

The majority of the squad are on a day off, resting up after two intense training days at the start of the week, but there is no such luxury for O’Connor as the wheel continues to turn and his time is demanded elsewhere. There is much to do, in this week of all weeks.

On this particular morning, he’s overseeing a session for a group of injured players and will work closely with them as they continue their respective roads to recovery, before the bulk of the group are back in tomorrow to finalise preparations for Glasgow Warriors.

It’s a fast-paced environment, and multi-layered job, but for an individual whose off-field marriage to the gym and training made him the player he became, there is no surprise O’Connor’s passion remains undiluted.

Pre-season is naturally the busiest period of the year for the 38-year-old, as the strength and conditioning team are tasked with not only priming the players for the demands of a long and arduous campaign, but also putting the framework in place to ensure they are in peak physical condition to sustain Connacht’s high-tempo style of play week-on-week.

Working alongside head of athletic performance David Howarth — who was with NBA side Oklahoma City Thunder previously — and Barry O’Brien, O’Connor is part of small but experienced strength and conditioning team whose role is ever-evolving and increasingly important.

“We’re a team who want to play with a high-tempo and with a great level of accuracy,” he tells The42.

Connacht's assistant coach Johnny O'Connor looks on O'Connor is in his second season as S&C coach. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The arrival of Andy Friend as head coach has seen Connacht work extensively on their technical skills over the summer months, with the three pre-season wins over Brive, Wasps and Bristol providing evidence of how their free-flowing and expansive attacking game is developing.

Friend’s previous experience with the Australia Sevens team has also seen him introduce a number ideas from that format, and his vision for the way the game should be played — or at least how Connacht should play it — means there is an even greater emphasis on what happens in the gym under O’Connor’s watch.

“Andy has laid out how he wants to play and it’s then up to us to produce leaner, fitter, faster and stronger players,” he continues.

“If you look at basic skill-sets for the game of rugby, such as clearing someone out. If a player needs to improve that area of their game, we’ll look at whether it’s a technical issue or a physical issue.

“If it’s a technical issue, the player can then go and work with the coaches and actually fix those things and if it’s a physical issue, we can work with them in the gym.

“When you put all the key points of the game together like the breakdown and your re-alignment in attack, they’re hugely important but if you’re not fit you’re not going to be in the line early enough and your decision-making process is going to be affected.

“It has been really, really clear this pre-season in terms of what we want to do. We’re going to play with a lot of tempo, and we’re going to run some teams off their feet.”

The early signs have been particularly encouraging under Friend, and there’s a growing sense around these parts that something special is building, within these five counties, within these four walls.

Even in the walk up College Road towards the Sportsground, or all the way in towards the city off the motorway, there are posters and banners promoting the start of the new season, and the self-coined ‘month of champions.’

Nobody in here is getting too carried away but you can’t hide from the fact there is a feel-good factor around the rugby team again, and Connacht is the talk of the town for all the right reasons.

What’s clear is that there is a renewed spirit around the place after the disappointment and frustration of last season under Kieran Keane, and Friend’s holistic approach has helped cultivate a strong dressing room bond.

O’Connor’s stature as one of the province’s most-revered former players has certainly added to the group, his rugby intellect second-to-none and his passion and love for the club shining through in the drive and enthusiasm he brings to work every day.

“I’m really enjoying it,” he says. “Rugby is a nice environment for a strength and conditioning coach to work in just because players feel the need for it, you’re setting guys up to win collisions and I really enjoy that aspect of it. The buy-in from the players, they’re easy to deal with and the lads here really, really want to do something.

“You can tell how they’ve carried themselves through the pre-season and even last year, how one season goes isn’t a reflection of where the group is at. It seems this year we’re in a good space, we’ve come together well.

“We’ve probably had some better squads before but at the moment, our key messages and where we’re going, it’s changed. There’s certainly a far more superior and intelligent player than when I was here as a player and that’s the just facts of it.

“Things change very quickly and even when I came back in it was just a noticeable change. We’ve found a style instead of trying to copy everyone else’s style and I think we’re going to keep going with that.”

It’s now five years since the Galway native made his 146th and final appearance in the green of Connacht, as the curtain came down on an illustrious 14-year career, which earned him legendary status around these parts.

inpho_01325080 O'Connor works alongside David Howarth. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The former flanker, who signed his first professional contract in 2000, enjoyed two stints in Galway with his native province either side of a four-year spell with Wasps.

During his time in England, O’Connor was involved in two Heineken Cup wins, two Premiership titles and a Powergen Cup victory, before coming back to Connacht in 2007 to finish his playing days where it all started.

Although there had been lingering doubts over his size for Test rugby, he more than proved his worth in winning 12 caps for Ireland, as his hunger, drive and commitment to the jersey earned him the nickname Johnny ‘Concrete’ O’Connor.

So impressive was his rookie season at international level, O’Connor was named IRUPA players’ player of the year in 2005, a further indication of just how valued he was in a dressing room, with his durability, dynamism and work-ethic coming to the fore.

He carried those core values with him throughout his playing career, having been set on the right path in his late-teens by a Kiwi team-mate in Galway Corinthians after a difficult couple of years in school.

“I didn’t get it easy, I didn’t have an easy life for it,” he reflects. “Rugby taught me values in my late-teens and I started making better decisions in my life as I had been a bit wild as a teenager. I had had a few schools and it wasn’t ideal.

“The values of rugby and the people around it, guys you looked up to, made a big difference to me.

“It has been a big part of my life for personal reasons. I wasn’t ever the greatest student and I suppose rugby would have kept me out of trouble and given me opportunities. There’s a level of loyalty to it, because if I wasn’t good at rugby I don’t know where I would be.”

The youngest child of the family, O’Connor played ‘all sports’ as a child but the proximity of Galway Corinthian Rugby Club to his home meant it was the game he always most invested in, first picking up an oval ball at the age of nine.

Having started secondary school in St Enda’s in Salthill, O’Connor was moved to boarding school after first year and arrived at Garbally College in Ballinsasloe as a 15-year-old with a reputation for trouble.

But rugby was becoming an increasingly big part of his life, and having already developed into an outstanding young talent at open-side, helped Garbally win the Connacht Junior Cup before becoming the youngest player to represent the Connacht Schools team at just 16.

“I didn’t know Connacht Rugby existed at the time or anything like that,” he continues.

“There was certain behavioural traits that I needed to shift, and rugby kind of kicked it out of for me. At about 16/17 I was drawn to that; I could see what I could have and wanted it.

“I suppose there weren’t many back rowers around and I was lucky that a guy called Shane McDonald took me under his wing. He was a Kiwi hooker and was out in Corinthians and started training me and getting me involved in strength and conditioning. He took me aside and looked after me and that had a massive effect on my career because I just got so far ahead of the game.

“At 20 years of age I started making my breakthrough at the first team here [in Connacht] and that was thanks to Shane literally giving me an hour or two of his time a week and training me. He set me on those behavioural changes.

Eric Elwood after the match with Johnny O'Connor and his son Jack With Eric Elwood and his son Jack after his final Connacht game in 2013. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I was so far ahead of the game physically compared to most others, I’d probably say in Ireland to be honest. Everyone obviously caught up and there was parity, but in terms of physical attributes and general strength markings and stuff, there weren’t many guys who would touch me at the time and that was just from Shane taking me aside and putting me on the right path.”

O’Connor suffered his fair share of injury setbacks along the way, but it was his unrelenting work-rate and drive to succeed which meant there was never any question of putting the head down and doing everything he could to get better.

Possibly borne out of self-effacement and self-questioning, O’Connor was shy by nature and his unassuming disposition and personality devoid of any assumptions or ego, ensured he constantly strived to a be a better version of himself for the team.

There are stories of him in the Wasps gym on crutches during different lay-offs, and it speaks volumes of his integrity and obvious ability that he was brought over from Connacht by Warren Gatland on the recommendation of Lawrence Dallaglio.

O’Connor has tried to park that chapter in his life and doesn’t give it much thought, but for a player whose hunger, toughness and serial winner mentality ultimately defined him as the rampaging flanker he became, there are always lingering regrets.

“People say you don’t any [regrets], but I think you always sit down and you do. There are certain things that you would regret. There are certain times I wish my head space was different and certain situations I wish I dealt with better. When I was younger I could have been a better leader, and been a bit clearer on what I wanted.

“I was a bit shy when I was a bit younger. I was a bit shy and I use shyness as a kind of a way to get out of things. Like I could have stood up and been a bit more manly about the things and just fucking spoke my mind when there were certain things I didn’t believe in.

“There are always regrets, there are always missed opportunities. When I was England, I only played in one final and lasted about 57 seconds. I got cleaned out and spent about seven months out of the game. There is nothing I can do about them now but just the kind of regrets… The things that drive me on now in this role. Looking at a trophy and the escalation of actually lifting it. The reward for hard work.

“Physically I obviously can’t do that anymore, but I can put my players in the right space to have that kind of drive and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

In that sense, O’Connor was only ever going to find himself back here.

Having studied for a degree in strength and conditioning at the Limerick Institute of Technology during his playing days, O’Connor was sure on the direction he wanted to take once the boots had been put away, and was invited to join Arsenal’s academy staff by Des Ryan, the club’s academy head of sports medicine and athletic development.

It was a completely different challenge for O’Connor given his background in rugby but a two-year stay not only enhanced his coaching credentials, but taught him an awful lot about working with elite sportspeople and the various ways to get a message across.

“There are a lot of things I’ll take out of it,” he says, looking back on his time at London Colney. “The club are doing great things and putting a big emphasis on their youth programme and giving the young players the right tools.

Johnny O'Connor O'Connor made 146 appearances for his native province. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“You develop players at an early age and give them the right stimulus, I’m not saying you’re going to make them a better footballer but you’re going to make them a hell of a lot more robust and ready for the Premier League. That’s the way the game is going, and some get that, some don’t.

“If you look at the guys who have started going through Arsenal — Hector Bellerin, Alex Iwobi — that’s testament to the programme they have in place. There are some great kids there but just the flip side of it, they are young guys getting paid and the potential is kind of a difficult thing to deal with for them, they’re still kids.

“Trying to keep those guys on the ground because some of the money those lads are getting paid, I couldn’t even dream of it myself, nor could most rugby players. That was the one thing I took out of it — someone can have huge potential and you tell them what work ethic is, but if they don’t have it they’re going to underachieve and slip out of the system.”

It wasn’t long before he was drawn back to Galway, and initially a role with the county’s League of Ireland side under manager Shane Keegan as he continued to climb the career ladder, before returning to where it all began last summer.

“I’ve a great love for this place,” O’Connor says. “I don’t know if I’ll do it justice… It’s kind of a love affair. The highs and lows I’ve experienced here.

“I never believed I didn’t get picked for Ireland because I was from Connacht, I don’t believe that and anyone who has previously believed that is wrong because you don’t get picked because you’re not good enough and there’s always a reason why. But I always believed every time I came into work something I could change something and there’s perseverance there and there was this mindset that at some point it’s going to change and it could be this week, this Monday, this Tuesday but it’s going to turn.

“There are great lessons in terms of failure. I probably learned more when I moved home in 2007. Physically I was pretty ball-bagged, I was at the back-end of my career at that age which was a bit of a shame. Going through all those ups and downs and figuring things out, it took me about three or four years to get back on track and put out performances which I’d feel proud of as an individual.

“There are great kind of lessons when you’re in the doldrums, if you keep coming back for more because it is fucking depressing and fucking sad. There are stages there that hits you pretty hard because you want to do well and believe in it all but you’re just so far away from it and everyone on the outside thinks it’s a lack of effort, a lack of clarity or a lack of players. It takes a while for clubs to come together and figure things out.”

O’Connor’s mindset hasn’t changed with a change of roles. What he brought as a player — a high-octane, all-tackling demon who was always top of the tackle, yardage and ball carrying counts — is now what you get from him as a coach. There are no airs and graces, just hard work. And a hunger to win.

“I don’t know if some of the players even know I played,” he laughs. “But, yeah, I love it, I absolutely fucking love it. I love every bit of it. I love the… There is no challenge being in the west of Ireland. We have everything we need, although you’d like a bigger stadium and all these kind of things, but it’s great.

Johnny O'Connor Life back in Galway. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The lifestyle here is incredible. The west of Ireland is for me it feels like real Ireland. I feel at home here and if I move away again, you could be anywhere, but I’ll always be drawn back here. It’s a love affair thing really. You experience so many lows out there, but you always want to come back. I just love rugby, I love Connacht.

“And that means winning a trophy is the number one thing for me now, whether it happens in my time here or someone else’s. I want the club to win, or to at least put the right framework in for us to win in the future.

“It’s still hugely important for me as an individual that I come in every day and my level of preparation is to a degree that I’m putting us in the best space to go and win the game at the weekend.”

Even with the tracksuit on, bad performances and results still run through O’Connor.

“The hard thing is you can’t do anything about it. You’re not out there anymore. Losses hurt. I don’t particularly enjoy them but I suppose I’ve learned to deal with them better as I’m not the guy making the errors or making the team errors in the game. Maybe the pain passes a bit quicker but the effects do last. It still hurts.”

The hope is that there will be no such feeling this afternoon as Connacht get their campaign up and running against Glasgow in front of what promises to be a raucous atmosphere at a sold-out Sportsground [KO 3pm, eir Sport/TG4].

These are the type of days O’Connor relished as a player, and the occasions he was so desperate to come back for.

“I’m lucky to have a job here,” he adds. “I’d love to be at Connacht for as long as I can, but you have to weigh up is that the right thing for the club.

“There is a cycle. I’d love to be here for another three, four, five years and be involved in something special. It’s a special place to be, and Galway is a special place to live. I don’t want to leave any time soon.”

You can see why.

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Ryan Bailey

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