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O'Connell wary of overloading U20s with too much information in search of solutions

The Ireland assistant coach says there is so much detail in the modern game that it can often muddle a young player’s thinking.

PAUL O’CONNELL’S ADDITION to the Ireland U20s coaching team for the Six Nations always seemed propitious and certainly his rugby intellect and experience has added a huge amount to the environment — but he, like the players, is very much in the learning phase of his career.

Paul O'Connell O'Connell is part of the Ireland U20s coaching team for the Six Nations. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The former Ireland captain was the first to admit he is still in infancy of his coaching career and there were certain things he needed to learn when joining Noel McNamara’s backroom team for this year’s championship.

O’Connell’s first steps on the coaching ladder in retirement was in an advisory role with the Munster academy but when he stepped away from that position at the end of last season, accepting McNamara’s invitation to become assistant coach of the U20s was seen as the next step.

The players, and indeed McNamara, have already spoken warmly about O’Connell’s impact in the dressing room over the first three rounds — during which Ireland have won one, lost two — but the 38-year-old is learning just as much as anyone on the training paddock and in team meeting rooms.

“It is a learning curve,” he admits. “The [senior] coaches are brilliant that way to chat to. Simon [Easterby], Andy Farrell and Joe [Schmidt]. They’re great to spend time with and run things by and I think because we’re doing, well we’re trying to do a lot of similar things, they probably had some of the same problems as we’ve had.

“You can text any one of them at any time of the day and they’ll always come back to you by that evening and that’s really, really enjoyable to have that kind of resource available.”

The problems O’Connell speaks of have mainly been in defence for the U20s, as lapses in concentration — both as a team and individuals — have exposed systematic flaws and cost them cheap tries in defeats to France and Wales, while they were fortunate to come out on top in a haphazard contest with Italy in round two.

Much of the work on the paddock during the week has been spent on tightening the defensive structures and dealing with mauls, while identifying and correcting the errors that have already been made has been a big focus in the video analysis room.

But O’Connell is wary of overloading the players with too much information as Ireland search for solutions ahead of Friday’s clash with Scotland at Donnybrook [KO 7.15pm RTÉ], stressing less is often more.

“I think we play really good rugby and we’re capable of scoring tries, we just have stop being so capable of conceding them as well,” he says.

“We’ve conceded on maul a few times which is pretty disappointing and we’ve failed to score off a maul as well which is disappointing. If you reverse that stat, we’d be in a far better place.

Ireland U20 v Leinster A - Friendly Ireland face Scotland at Donnybrook this Friday. Source: Ramsey Cardy

“I don’t think focusing on putting in an 80-minute performance really makes you any better, you’ve got to focus on the little fixes that led you to conceding in the games like we did.

“You’re trying to get as much done in a short period of time and sometimes the more you do, from my experience as a player, the more difficult it is to perform and play because you’ve got so much going on in your head.

“I think trying to give them a little bit of information which can make a big difference and giving them information that they’re still able to play and use their talent and their speed and their power which they have in abundance, that’s the challenge of the job.

“There’s so many things you’d love to say to them and give them and knowledge you’d love to impart, but it’s a question of trying to do the right amount so you don’t knock them off their game as well.”

It’s a fine balance, particularly when working with young players still in the development stage, both physically and tactically, but so too is achieving a happy medium between positive results and instructive, progressive performances.

“I think they work well together,” O’Connell continues. “I think if we make these guys better players, we have a better chance of winning. If we give them better habits, we have a better chance of winning.

“I do think we have done that. It probably hasn’t showed in some of the results but I do think a lot of these guys will have a lot of good habits coming out of this Six Nations period.

“Hopefully they maintain those for the next months after that then, and we head into the World Cup as a far better team, with far better players than we had.

“I don’t think you can pursue one without pursing the other. I think if you make them better players, better coached, better understanding of how we want to attack and how we want to defend, it should lead to results, or at least better performances anyway.”

While exposure to game time at U20 international level is undoubtedly viewed as a key phase in any player’s development, the weeks spent in such a professional environment is equally beneficial, with many of the structures surrounding gym work, analysis and diet akin to that of the senior team.

The sessions against Joe Schmidt’s squad have also become an important part of the schedule and the outings in Athlone and the Aviva Stadium during the down weeks have been invaluable experiences for the players — and indeed O’Connell.

Paul O'Connell O'Connell pictured at the team hotel in Sandymount yesterday. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It’s great and we’re trying to do a lot of similar things to what the seniors do so when they hear Joe talking about a lot of the things we’re speaking about, doing a lot of the drills we’re doing, I suppose it just reinforces the message,” the former second row explains.

“They get to see the standard of where a lot of these Irish internationals are but they [the seniors] had to go through the whole learning curve of the ups and downs what these guys are going through at the moment.

“In terms of physicality, there probably isn’t a big difference between these guys and where those senior guys were when they were 20, but they’ve had a whole lot of coaching and there is so much detail in the game now; how you defend, how you attack, how you defend mauls, how you attack mauls and the scrum is so detailed — you can’t take all that in during one period.

“It needs time to go in and only then you’re capable of moving onto the next thing so those guys are way, way down that track, the seniors. Sometimes for our guys it might seem like a massive jump but it isn’t really, you just have to take it kind of day-by-day, bank a bit of knowledge and move onto the next thing.”

Through his work with the Munster academy and now the national U20s set-up, O’Connell is developing those coaching techniques and appreciates the delicate line between sending a player out on the field with too much to process as opposed to a clear understanding of what they need to do.

While admitting that young players now need to be ‘obsessed’ with the game given the level of detail involved, the Limerick native believes the individuals who are really standing out are the ones who have been able to take the coaching on board and use it to positively enhance their performance week-on-week.

“You look at Jamie Heaslip retiring, I thought he was a great guy at being able to compartmentalise the game. He was able to be this incredible professional that had real high detail on everything he did and had real knowledge about what he did.

“But he was able to compartmentalise it and move on and do other things. He was able to study, he was able to be involved in a few businesses and things like that. They’re the players who are thriving, the ones who don’t let coaching affect their game from a physical point of view.”

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