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'Expectations are probably realistic in Munster for the first time in a long time'

Paul O’Connell feels a top-four finish would be a fine season for the province.

IT WAS NEVER likely that Paul O’Connell was going to be allowed to fade out of rugby after his retirement from playing.

The former second row is renowned for his rugby intellect, tactical acumen, mental skills, and motivational power. O’Connell has always seemed built to coach or at least contribute on the non-playing side.

Mick O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Peter Stringer with the Magners League trophy O'Connell was part of Munster's glory days. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The 36-year-old was keen for a break after his retirement was confirmed in February, but the offers understandably started to roll in almost immediately.

Grenoble were among the clubs who attempted to secure O’Connell as a forwards coach, and the Limerick man had several enticing options.

“I spoke to a few places alright, but I felt it was really important to take a step back from rugby a little bit,” says O’Connell.

“You hear about Eddie Jones or Pep Guardiola – when you’re a coach you probably do become obsessive and I think when you’ve a young family, it’s important to make sure it’s something you definitely want to do.

“For me, after 15 years of professional rugby, it was important to be able to step back a little bit and have a look at other stuff as well. That’s what I’m enjoying at the moment.”

All of the full-time, professional rugby coaching offers were declined. However, even with his insistence that he wanted to step back, O’Connell was still convinced to move into the non-playing side of the game.

In July, Munster announced that O’Connell would re-join the province as a part-time advisor to the academy, acting as a mentor to young players.

Just over two months in, O’Connell is enjoying his role alongside academy manager Peter Malone and elite player development officers Grieg Oliver and Colm McMahon.

“It’s going,” says O’Connell with a laugh when asked how his coaching career is going. “A part-time role keeps me plugged into it but allows me to do other stuff as well. I have to say I’m enjoying it and I’m learning a lot from the coaches in the academy down there.

“That’s one thing I probably didn’t realise – how good the quality of the people they have working in there and how good the quality of the players are as well.

“It’s such a bigger step now than when I first came through in rugby. When I first came through, I got to play AIL against all these guys, against Mick Galway, against John Langford, against Marcus Horan, Alan Quinlan, Anthony Foley.

“So when you went to Munster training, it wasn’t that much of a step up anymore. Whereas now, it’s a big, big step for these guys to be able to go physically from AIL or Ireland U20s or whatever it is to professional rugby.

“It’s a big step, so trying to help them do that is a big challenge and it’s one I’m really only learning at the moment.”

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Paul O'Connell O'Connell and Munster lost in the 2015 Pro12 final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Learning for greater things ahead perhaps. Certainly, it would seem that O’Connell has much more to offer Munster and others in the future.

For now, he remains part of the Munster family and is enthusiastic about the impact of new director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, even if their working relationship is not a direct one at this point.

“I think it’s exciting,” says O’Connell of the South African’s arrival. “I think expectations are probably realistic down in Munster for the first time in a long time and I think that’s going to be good for them.

“I don’t know Rassie that well but I get a great vibe from the players, they seem to be enjoying it and are really excited. I think they’re really excited by Jacques Nienaber’s coaching as well, and by Felix Jones’ coaching.

“I’ve been in and around the new [high performance] centre the last few days. It’s a great complex so I think it comes at a great time for Munster now when there’s a little bit of change needed in how we do things.

“I think Munster were probably very lucky to have Rassie and he’s come at the right time and I think everyone is going to learn off him – Jerry Flannery, Anthony [Foley], Felix, and I think Munster will be in a whole lot of a better place for his experience.”

As for his expectations for Munster this season, O’Connell is also realistic.

“I’d love to see them make the top four of the Pro12, I’d love to see them put in some big performances in the European Cup. I think if they could get out of their group it would be a phenomenal achievement.”

A little modest perhaps?

“That’s life, isn’t it? That’s just where we are at the moment, there’s no point… you can’t get away from it – it’s just a fact at the moment.”

Paul O’Connell was launching Aldi’s sponsorship of the IRFU’s Play Rugby programme.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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