Maro Itoje and Paul O'Connell.
rugby brain

England wary of O'Connell influence ahead of lineout battle with Ireland

Ireland have made 14 lineout steals so far in this championship.

WE THOUGHT IT might take a question from one of the three Irish journalists on the England media calls to bring the conversation around to Paul O’Connell but his name popped up without prompt.

Second row Johnny Hill mentioned him within two sentences of a question about the injured James Ryan, while England forward coach Matt Proudfoot was highlighting the “added value” of O’Connell’s “leadership and coaching” within three.

O’Connell played against England 13 times in his career, winning eight times, and you just know the Limerick man will be loving the challenge of coaching against them this week.

The former Munster second row has had an instant impact on Ireland after joining as forwards coach ahead of the Six Nations, with his influence nowhere more obvious than at the defensive lineout.

Ireland have made 14 lineout steals so far in this championship, with next best Wales all the way back on seven. 

England have the highest lineout success rate on their own throw at 92.7% and have lost the fewest lineouts with only three.

The best lineout defence in the championship against the best lineout? Bring it on.

“I think you’ve got to earn your right to win the ball elsewhere,” said Proudfoot when asked about Ireland’s aggressive lineout defence at the front in particular.

“They will pressurise us, they will look at what we have done before, they will look at where our strengths are and look to pressurise our strengths and where we want to go.

“I think they will bring in Peter O’Mahony who is also extremely intelligent in that area. He does really, really well for Munster and has done in that area for Ireland in the past at contesting. I think they will have a new strategic plan put in place for us and we need to be smart enough to adapt to that.”

englands-forwards-coach-matt-proudfoot Matt Proudfoot joined England from the Springboks. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Exeter lock Hill, meanwhile, has been impressed having done his lineout analysis of Ireland ahead of Saturday.

“Having looked closely the last few days, they’ve had a really good performance defensively,” said Hill.

“I think Paul O’Connell has added a lot to them with his coaching, they’ve made lots of good steps forward, they’re getting a lot of guys in the air defensively.

“When they’re winning the ball, they’re taking good options and their maul is pretty effective as well. Peter O’Mahony will probably come back in and Tadhg Beirne will go into the [second] row alongside Iain Henderson. They’re a very good partnership I’d say.

“It’s our toughest challenge this weekend, set-piece-wise in the lineout, so it’s something we’ve spent a bit of time on and we’re looking forward to.”

Proudfoot, who joined England after helping the Springboks to World Cup success in 2019, knows all about the importance of a high-quality set-piece at the top level of the game.

His view of Ireland’s improvement is that O’Connell’s passion for this area is the most important factor.

“I think every coach has his own specific DNA that he drives,” said Proudfoot. “I’ve not seen a big change, just bigger ownership by the players. You can see it in the execution of the lineout, so there has obviously been a lot of small talk, work on decision-making and execution.

“That is obviously Paul’s passion and that will flow into the players and the players will start taking ownership and driving it. 

“The three sides of the lineout – the maul, the lineout, and the contesting – you can see the improvement in all three areas, there has just been incredible growth in what they are doing.

maro-itoje England's lineout has been strong. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“You see the way they shut down Scotland at the weekend. Paul would have picked that up off the back of what Simon Easterby [who is now Ireland's defence coach] did.

“That is how you hope your coaching team grows and what you bring in doesn’t have to start all over again. It just adds continuity and you build on it and add value. I think that is what Paul has done.” 

England do have their own major lineout strengths, of course, with Hill and Maro Itjoe capable of wreaking havoc.

Saracens lock Itoje, who had been lacking in match sharpness earlier in this championship, was superb in last weekend’s win over France.

“He had his best game last weekend, in my opinion,” said Hill. “He was very prominent. He’s a guy that is very experienced and he knows how to get himself right.

“I don’t know exactly what he did in between matches but he obviously got himself in good shape for the French game.

“I’m working with him, learning a lot from him each day and he’s a player I’ve always looked up to. I’m always taking bits from his game and I’d like to think I’m helping him along as well.”
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