O'Connell the coach looks to move past 'aura' of his playing career

Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell hopes Andy Farrell’s squad will see beyond any preconceived notions of him.

Ireland forwards coach Paul O'Connell.
Ireland forwards coach Paul O'Connell.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IT IS NOT harsh to say that the standout achievement on Paul O’Connell’s rather limited coaching CV is being Paul O’Connell.

He has not been brought into Andy Farrell’s coaching team on the back of an impressive body of work accumulated since hanging up his playing boots, like the one Ronan O’Gara is currently adding to in France with La Rochelle.

O’Connell’s early experiences in coaching with the Ireland U20s and Stade Francais, as well as a role with the Munster Academy, showed signs of promise, but not enough to land a top-tier job with Ireland. His greatest value still lies in the player who retired five years ago, a competitive animal in the heat of battle who also had a grá for examining the finer details of the game.

That is why you have seen Johnny Sexton and Dave Kilcoyne offer up terms such as ‘passion,’ ‘aura’ and ‘presence’ when asked about O’Connell in the last week. The players don’t look at him and see a relatively raw coach. They see the three-time Six Nations champion, two-time Heineken Cup winner and former Lions captain.

“Look, most of them [the squad] I know a long time, I don’t think they’d look at me like that,” O’Connell says, brushing off some of the language that’s been used about him in recent days.

“They probably say nice things in the media because they have to, but I hope they appreciate how much the job means to me, to be involved in an Irish rugby team, to be involved in selecting Irish players. Andy picks the team but we’re involved in selecting Irish players to wear an Irish jersey, it is a pretty big responsibility for me.

“I think the players will appreciate that and I just have to be as honest as I can with them, I have to be constructive in my relationships with them and in my feedback with them. That’s what they want. They don’t want anything else. Any one of the players, and there are a few that I don’t know particularly well here… any preconceived notions they have of me hopefully won’t last long once they get to know me.”

They could be forgiven for being a little surprised when O’Connell was announced as Ireland’s new forwards coach last month. It is only a few months since he pointed out that one of the big drawbacks of pro-coaching is that he enjoys a clear schedule at the weekends. 

Yet the offer to come on board with Ireland, where the work is at least broken into periods of intense international windows, was too good to resist. 

“I suppose the opportunity was great. My family, we’re back in Limerick obviously, we don’t have to move anywhere. I’ve young kids and I think there are certain jobs in club coaching which are probably incredible jobs but they are pretty relentless when you’ve a young family and some of the guys that are in those jobs, there are some young guys but there are some older guys as well where a lot of the hard work is done with their kids.

“That was one of the big challenges of Paris (with Stade Francais) for us. It was incredibly enjoyable but you’ve a game on Saturday, you’re gone, you’re upstairs in an office for six or seven hours on Sunday and then you’re leaving the house on a Monday morning at five o’clock. So when you’ve young kids that’s a challenge.

“International coaching isn’t quite as many games. I remember, and Andy mentioned it to me a few times, that you’d love to have more games in the season to be able to sink your teeth into it and have the players for longer but you do get a chance to reflect, look back, look at what other teams are doing and learn from those.

paul-oconnell-looks-on-as-the-forwards-warm-up-before-the-game Paul O'Connell during his time working with the Ireland Under-20s. Source: Iconsport/INPHO

“I remember Alan Gaffney saying when he came to Munster he didn’t want to die wondering. If Andy hadn’t picked up the phone to me I probably would have moved on happily but when he did pick up the phone to me I felt it was something that I would have regretted refusing, even though it meant I had to get the skates under me and start preparing very quickly.”

The first test arrives on Sunday as Ireland take on Wales in Cardiff, the scene of some of the great O’Connell performances. But if anyone thinks the former captain is there to add a bit of ‘fear of God’ energy into a squad that has come up short in some of the more physical battles in recent seasons, the 41-year-old is well aware the modern player requires more than a rousing dressing-room speech.

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“I think a lot of the things that we used to talk about that were about the physical sides of the game are now coached. So rather than it being talk of physical dominance, there is a coaching method for every physical moment you see in a rugby match now. 

“That intent piece then has to be layered on top of it, so you can’t just bring your emotion and your passion for playing for Ireland. You have to have a solid foundation beneath that and I think coaches have been very good at coaching that.  

“You remember Brian O’Driscoll, the way he could come out of a line back in the day and read the defence and make these tackles out the back. It was something that was very hard to coach 10 years ago but it can be coached now and there’s so many of those moments that you see in games that are really well coached. It’s up to the player then to be able to take that on and to be able to deliver it physically, that’s the biggest change I’ve seen (since retiring).”

Of all O’Connell’s new students, perhaps none will be under as much scrutiny as James Ryan, a man touted as O’Connell’s heir apparent before he’d even won his first cap.

At just 24, Ryan comes into this Six Nations as a veteran of 32 caps and with captaincy experience already under his belt. O’Connell is understandably excited to work closely with a young lock who can be utterly dominant on his day, even if the last 12 months contained some rare off-colour performances.

“He’s an incredible player, a world class player I think but there’s probably loads of growth left in him,” he explains.

“You look even at Peter O’Mahony at the moment and I think his experience of different coaching styles, being on a Lions tour, working with Joe [Schmidt], working with Rassie Erasmus, working with Steve Larkham and Johann van Graan now, he’s played with a lot of great players, his experience is really telling now in how he plays. I don’t think he’s physically any different.

“I think it’s the same for James. James is a fantastic player. He’s got an incredible work-ethic, as a ball-carrier he’s top class, his maul defence is top class and as he gathers experience and experiences different coaches, that will be the icing on the cake for his game.

“He’s in there with a group of second-rows who are all very different in their own way, they do different things and challenge each other in different ways. They’re all making each other better but there isn’t a lot you can add to James Ryan physically in terms of his size, his fitness, but as his knowledge of the game grows and his experience grows, he’s only going to get better as a player.”

Learning from the best shouldn’t do him any harm. 

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey chat Six Nations and its future, the contractual bottleneck and French interest in Irish stars, Leone Nakarawa’s arrival in Belfast, and the poor standard of officiating in rugby :

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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