'I felt I could immediately offer value to the coaching staff and the players'

New Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell says he was surprised to be offered the job by Andy Farrell.

Paul O'Connell and Ireland second-row James Ryan.
Paul O'Connell and Ireland second-row James Ryan.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THERE WAS NOTHING unusual about the sight of Andy Farrell’s name flashing up on Paul O’Connell’s phone. The two were in fairly regular contact, checking in and chatting about games, just as O’Connell did with a number of other coaches.

This time however, the call was different, coming a few weeks after Ireland had secured a third placed finish in the Autumn Nations Cup. A job offer. If he wanted it, O’Connell would be Ireland forwards coach in time for the 2021 Six Nations. 

It wasn’t a call O’Connell had been expecting.

“I would speak to him a lot,” O’Connell explained, taking his first press conference as Ireland’s new forwards coach earlier today.

“And I would speak to other coaches a lot. I just find watching the game interesting. Even the rugby matches that people find boring these days where there’s a lot of kicking, I always find it interesting trying to find out why teams are doing what they’re doing. There’s generally a logical reason behind it. So I’d always be picking up the phone to coaches. But we’d never discussed that [coming on board], so it was a surprise.”

O’Connell gave the offer plenty of thought given his previous coaching experiences in club rugby hadn’t exactly sold him on the idea of life on the other side of the touchline. He took a few weeks before giving Farrell the answer he had been hoping for. Now that he’s in the bubble, with almost a full week of camp life under his belt, he’s confident he’s got his timing right.

“I feel I can offer value. I have an awful lot to learn, certainly as a coach but I felt I could immediately offer value to the coaching staff and the players.

“And it’s a great opportunity. International coaching is very different, you get that development opportunity, you get a chance to reflect, a chance to improve during the times when you’re not coaching and not stuck in a tournament. But when you’re in a tournament it’s full-on.

“I suppose my recent connection to playing – you could say it’s a bit of a weakness – but I think it’s a strength as well. You’re still clued into what a player feels and how a player learns, and how hard it can be to learn at times, and to change a habit.”

O’Connell’s immediate remit it to help fix a lineout which came under heavy scrutiny in the autumn. Too often, Farrell saw his team fail to capitalise from the set-piece when in prime territory on the pitch. It’s an area of Ireland’s game which had started to creak even before its long-time master Rory Best stepped away in 2019, so O’Connell is aware it won’t be an overnight fix.

“I certainly hope I’ll have an impact in the lineout, but a big part of the lineout is experience,” he continued. “To be able to see pictures and have the feel of what is going to happen before it happens, you need be there a lot. You need to see it.

“You probably need to have a bad few days and learn from them. I think the Ireland lineout has been pretty good. There have been a few high profile losses right on the opposition line and I suppose they are very expensive.

“You can lose a lineout on halfway, you may not have scored from it or you haven’t had an amazing chance to score from it, but if you have a lineout from five metres out, it’s an important lineout. They have been high profile losses for the lineout. It has been a big learning curve for the players. I would have went through that as a player as well.

“You can do all the analysis and try and put all the systems in place, [but] there is a feel to it and there is a bit of experience that allows you to see the pictures quickly.

englands-maro-itoje-wins-a-line-out Ireland's lineout struggled against England in the autumn. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It has evolved from when I would have played, but I suppose there are little bits and pieces in all the provinces that we steal and poach off each other. So, I have a familiarity with the system.”

A lot has changed since O’Connell was last part of an Ireland squad. Not only is the head coach different, the surroundings are too.

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“We’re in the HPC (High Performance Centre) now and that has actually made a big change to it because you’ve pitchside televisions in the indoor pitch area, you’ve TVs in the gym, so you’re able to have these mini meetings, these short meetings where you’re able to go from a meeting to a little bit of technical work, back to a meeting to a little bit of technical work. 

“There was going to be a natural change anyway from when Joe [Schmidt] finished to when Andy took over. I suppose when we had meetings with Joe, he loved the meetings, he was box office when he delivered, and he was always trying to keep everything to under 30 minutes, so there wasn’t a lot of questions.

“But I always enjoyed then debating things after the meetings with him. I never felt like I couldn’t question him or argue with him. I loved the environment. 

“It’s probably similar here. It’s probably shorter meetings because there’s more time for questioning. In fairness the question that Tom O’Toole asks in a meeting today and the answer he gets, is probably a question that seven or eight people should be asking as well. So it’s probably good that we have those discussions and debates. And that’s the way the players learn these days.

“It isn’t about long meetings. It’s short, sharp meetings. They watch things on their phone, you can send them things on their phone. That wasn’t there towards the end of my time, when I retired. We were into a meeting, it was generally half an hour long, and then the questioning would happen afterwards over dinner or lunch or whatever. It’s different here.”

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Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Ciarán Kennedy

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