O'Connell excited by 'dynamic' Ireland pack as coaching journey continues

This time a year ago, O’Connell wasn’t keen on being in involved in the professional game.

Image: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

IT’S JUST OVER a year since Paul O’Connell told us that professional coaching was “too full-on” for him.

The Munster and Ireland legend had spent the 2018/19 season working under Heyneke Meyer in Stade Français and it hadn’t been a good experience.

The long, intense days involved in club coaching hadn’t sat well with him, particularly with his young family over in Paris too. So after getting out of the Top 14 club, O’Connell was happy to steer clear of professional coaching.

“I’m not looking to coach right now,” said O’Connell in late October 2020. “It’s not something that whets my appetite very much at the moment.”

And then Andy Farrell popped up out of nowhere with an offer to come on board as Ireland’s forwards coach. It was difficult for O’Connell to refuse the chance to coach his country and the rhythm of international coaching – in camp for relatively short but intense blocks and then lots of family time in between – seemed ideal.

But funnily enough, O’Connell now has the opposite frustration to the one he felt with Stade Français.

“The big thing is the time challenge,” says O’Connell, who is now 10 months into his time with Ireland.

“Club coaching is tough, there’s so many games in the year. International rugby, there isn’t enough games.

“You’d love something smack bang in the middle, to allow you to put your head up and look around at what’s going on in the world and see if there’s anything to copy, paste and edit as we do.

“You’d also love to be in the grind a little bit more and building. That’s the challenge.”

paul-oconnell O'Connell pictured before last weekend's clash with Japan. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

O’Connell is enjoying the gig, though, and the results have been good on the pitch. There have been hiccups for Ireland’s forwards at times but their lineout defence has been a huge strength since he took over and the maul looked superb against Japan last weekend.

He has been adding nous to Ireland’s breakdown work and restarts too, all while continuing to learn the actual art of coaching.

O’Connell has always been a good communicator but it’s interesting to note just how precise and fluent he is when talking now.

“You don’t get a lot of time with the players, you need to be pretty clear in what you want them to do,” says O’Connell. “You need to keep delivering that.

“I suppose we change little bits from time to time but players can’t keep hearing different messages. They need to have the same messages thrown at them and said in the right way.

“That’s the big thing for us, you get so little time to package it as best as we possibly can for the players so that when they do come into us they are able to pick it up really quickly.”

O’Connell is excited about what he calls the “new breed” of young Irish player who is athletic but also comfortable at handling the ball. Last weekend’s big win over Japan gave us evidence that this Ireland forward pack is very much in that mould.

And O’Connell believes there is more to come.

“The potential in the forward group that we have is incredible,” says the 42-year-old.

“You want competition for places, you want guys knowing that ‘when I come in I have to train and play well if I want to keep my place.’ You want guys just below them saying, ‘I have to train the house down because when I get my crack, I have to perform.

“That’s great for any forward. The emergence of a few young players at the moment, older players looking after their bodies and staying in shape to allow them to keep playing has been great for us.

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“It’s an exciting time, training is exciting for us. As a forwards coach, it’s hard to pick a starting pack, you’ve very competitive training sessions.

paul-oconnell-and-andy-farrell O'Connell and Andy Farrell. Source: IRFU/Ryan Bailey/INPHO

“It’s a dynamic pack, big guys, but they also handle the ball incredibly well. They’re quick to get off the floor, it’s an exciting group to coach and be involved in.”

So O’Connell clearly feels he has the raw materials to work with, while he has enjoyed teaming up with Farrell, scrum coach John Fogarty, attack coach Mike Catt, and defence coach Simon Easterby.

Getting the balance right between their areas of expertise is another challenge.

“Set-piece, it doesn’t matter where you go; it’s such an important part of the game for us,” says O’Connell.

“Kick-offs, scrums, lineouts. If you can be very comfortable and competent on your own ball and put the opposition under pressure in those parts of the game then you can deny the opposition access and give your own team access.

“Trying to figure out ways to do that that take as little time as possible during the [training] week, so we can work on other things as well.

“Certainly, when I first came into the Irish team [as a player], the balance of how we trained in terms of set-piece was far too much set-piece and not enough of the other stuff.

“You’re trying to make sure you look after that really important part of the game in as little time as possible so that you can keep the players fresh and work on other things.”

As he continues to push himself as a coach, O’Connell is clearly a big asset to this Ireland set-up.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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