'One of the big things I’ve noticed about Irish players, they’re so conscientious about getting better'

Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell is currently helping the squad prepare for a 12 March date with England at Twickenham.

Ireland forwards coach Paul O'Connell.
Ireland forwards coach Paul O'Connell.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

AND SO, ON to Twickenham. Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad make the trip to London next weekend with a Six Nations title still potentially on the line, should France slip up against Wales or England in their final two fixtures.

Yet this Ireland team try to keep the focus on themselves. It’s a mantra you hear repeated in various forms and phrases throughout the playing and coaching staff. Look after your own house, everything else is outside of your control.

At the moment, Eddie Jones’ team look a little fallible. They’re missing key men, while others are still learning their trade at this level. ‘Nothing to worry about’, is Jones’ message, it’s all about the World Cup next year. Given Ireland’s performances over the last 12 months, they’ll make the trip to London quietly confident of securing a first win at the ground since the halcyon Joe Schmidt days in 2018.

Yet when it comes to playing England, very little ever changes. England are a tough side to beat, and Twickenham is a difficult place to get a result. The fact that a considerable chunk of Farrell’s squad have yet to experience a packed Twickenham also needs to come into consideration. The loss of Andrew Porter makes things a touch more complicated again. 

Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell has mixed emotions when he thinks of his own experiences playing at the home of English rugby. 

“It is a tough place to go and win to be sure,” O’Connell says. 

“My experiences there were good and bad. We took some bad beatings there but we had some great days there as well.

It’s probably no different to Paris for us. It’s something that some guys have to acknowledge that they haven’t a lot of experience of, you know, due to Covid, there isn’t a lot of experience of these away games in hostile environments where the opposition might get on top of you for a little while. And then the crowd might get behind them because they’re getting on top of you.

“Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that that is going to happen and use your smarts to ride it out, and then figure it out, to try and get back on top.

“I have no doubt in my mind that there will be a period in the game like that in Twickenham. It will be exciting and interesting to see how our players react.”

Ireland’s recent record at the stadium doesn’t make for pretty reading. Their last win in London was the sublime Grand Slam coronation in 2018. Ireland shipped 57 points on their next visit, a World Cup warm-up in August 2019. The following year’s Six Nations saw England totally dominate Farrell’s men in a 24-12 win. It was a similar story in the Autumn Nations Cup later that year, the idea of Ireland being ‘bullied’ the trending narrative across those bruising encounters.

Ireland clearly look in a much better place now, and the hope is that this round four fixture brings with it the first big away win of the Farrell era. For all the progress made under Schmidt’s successor recently, that statement win on the road remains elusive.

paul-oconnell O'Connell during an open training session at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

“We’ve had some tough experiences in Twickenham in recent times and that’s because England are such a good side,” O’Connell continues.

“They are so physical and so well-coached. They play a really shrewd tactical kicking game where they can kick long but their short kicking is really good as well. They just keep putting you under pressure and try to keep you in your own half.

“You need to be able to manage that. Hopefully, we’ll be in a better situation than we were two years ago to manage it, in terms of the players understanding how they want to defend with Simon Easterby and attack with Andy and Catty (Mike Catt).

For sure, we’ve improved since then. The players have accumulated a whole load of experiences under Andy Farrell and in terms of how we’re going to play and how we go about our business. Sometimes we have been really good at that, sometimes we have been really poor at that. And when we’ve been poor, we’ve given teams access into games and we have struggled. It’s the same challenge again now at Twickenham.

“Can we be calm and accurate under the pressure of a really good side who can be very physical with you, but can also be really clever in how they try and make you play?”

O’Connell can approach the fixture while leaning into his vast bank of experience, but many of this Ireland group don’t have that luxury. 

Five of the starting team against France had less than 20 Test caps to their name. With Rónan Kelleher now out injured, Dan Sheehan looks set to step up at hooker against Italy, having done well off the bench in Paris. That was just his fourth outing in green. Sunday’s win over Italy was the 23-year-old’s first Test start. 

dan-sheehan Hooker Dan Sheehan is in line to start against England. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

After Paris, Sheehan described throwing into the lineout as being ‘left there in this world of noise’. He’ll have boxed off his mental preparation on that beforehand, but nothing matches being in the middle of the madness.

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Part of O’Connell’s job involves making sure those younger, relatively inexperienced members of the squad are ready for the pressures of packed arenas in the likes of Paris and London, particularly after two years of pandemic-enforced empty stadiums.

“First of all, they’re really well coached when they come into us, that’s one of the biggest things and I suppose one of the big things of only having four professional (clubs) all run under the same umbrella is there’s of alignment in terms of what they do,” O’Connell explains.

“So, we trained with the U20s today (Thursday) and if you watched training afterwards, all our props were there kneeling down and doing all sorts of little drills with their young props. So, we have a lot of alignment from U20s to senior, a lot of alignment from the Academies to the provinces and they come to us really, really well coached already. 

One of the big things I’ve noticed about Irish players, they’re so conscientious about getting better. They really think about it. They really work hard on it. They don’t just want to take the coaching. They want to actually figure it out themselves. They need your help to figure it out. They need other player’s help to figure out but they do want to figure it out and take responsibility and deliver on it. 

“I think that’s a real great trait that Irish players have. Rónan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan are a pleasure to work with, very good at feeding back information, very good and feeding back what they felt or what they saw because ultimately as coaches – and I would have had this experiences as a player in a lineout – you’re not in it. You don’t know what they’re feeling. You have to be able to draw that out of them or for them to be able to get it to you. 

“So, young players are excellent at that and it’s a real good Irish trait. They’re very conscientious about getting better. They really take it upon themselves to figure it out and take responsibility, and that’s a real pleasure to work with as a coach.” 

Roll on Twickenham. 

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Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Ciarán Kennedy

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