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O'Connell takes next coaching step as Stade Français look for return to glory

The former Munster and Ireland lock has signed a two-year contract with the Top 14 club.

LAST WEEK’S ANNOUNCEMENT that Paul O’Connell has joined Stade Français’ coaching team got many Munster and Ireland fans’ imaginations working.

Ronan O’Gara is currently amassing impressive experience as an assistant coach. Paul O’Connell is now taking the next step in his coaching career. Surely the ‘dream team’ is a little closer to becoming reality?

Discussing the possibility of an O’Gara-O’Connell coaching partnership down the line is a lot of fun but it remains a very distant prospect, particularly given that O’Connell still isn’t sure if he is a career coach.

Paul O'Connell O'Connell is looking to learn if full-time coaching is really for him. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It seems like a really interesting and exciting opportunity for me and my family for two years to see if it is for me,” O’Connell told RTÉ’s Michael Corcoran last week.

“Even if it isn’t, it would be a very enjoyable experience I think. We are going to do it and give everything for two years. We should know a lot more about ourselves after it.”

Having signed a two-year contract with an option for third at Stade Français, O’Connell will find out for sure in the coming seasons.

He will be in good company in Paris, working under the club’s new head coach Heyneke Meyer, who had three years in charge of the Springboks and previously won a Super Rugby title with the Blue Bulls.

O’Connell will also be working alongside former Munster team-mate and fellow Young Munster clubman Mike Prendergast, who joined Stade this summer, continuing his upward trajectory in coaching.

O’Connell becomes part of a growing group of Irish coaches working abroad, with James Coughlan now in charge of Top 14 club Pau’s academy, Girvan Dempsey having joined Bath as attack coach, and Neil Doak taking on the same role at Worcester.

Ian Costello is Wasps’ new defence coach, John Muldoon has taken the same position at Bristol – where Conor McPhillips is attack coach – Jeremy Davidson has been appointed head coach of Brive and David Humphreys is Gloucester’s director of rugby [a non-coaching role].

Conor O’Shea is in charge of Italian rugby, Mark McDermott is Russia boss, Mark McCall has overseen Saracens’ impressive success, Bernard Jackman is attempting to rebuild the Dragons, Michael Bradley is in charge of Zebre, and Allen Clarke is head coach of the Ospreys.

There are several Irish coaches working professionally in the US too, with Greg McWilliams now attack coach for the national team and Justin Fitzpatrick working as head coach of the Houston SaberCats in Major League Rugby.

In Australia, meanwhile, Ireland analyst Eoin Toolan is in his first head coaching gig at the Melbourne Rising.

There are more Irish coaches working abroad at various levels, but the point is that O’Connell is joining a strong band of exiles learning their coaching trade outside Ireland.

Mike Prendergast Mike Prendergast was already with Stade. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

O’Gara’s five years as a coach include being with teams who have won the Top 14 and Super Rugby, as well as being part of a Champions Cup final and spending time in Ireland camp under Joe Schmidt.

The ex-Munster and Ireland out-half has worked as a defence, skills, kicking, attack and backs coach in his time as an assistant and he is now learning enormous amounts about the game, culturally and otherwise, with the Crusaders in New Zealand.

Having extended his contract with the Kiwi giants until the end of the 2019 Super Rugby season, there is more learning to come for O’Gara.

As for O’Connell, it appears that the Limerick man has many of the tools required to be a success as he takes on his first all-in coaching role.

O’Connell has, of course, gained experience working with Munster’s development sides and academy, as well as spending last season as Ireland U20s forwards coach, but this is an altogether different proposition.

Meyer was initially looking for a coach to work with Stade’s lineout on a consultancy basis – with former Boks lock Victor Matfield linked to the club – but O’Connell’s availability means the role has become full-time.

O’Connell will be primarily tasked with leading the lineout for Stade but his technical expertise in other areas such as the ruck is sure to see him involved in many aspects of the Parisians’ training-ground work.

There is no doubting O’Connell’s quality at lineout time – his tireless and detailed analysis work as a player is legendary – and he is generally acknowledged as having a deep rugby intellect and understanding.

O’Connell was a superb leader and communicator during his playing days but we’ve seen before how some ex-players struggle to convert those things into coaching. Learning French as quickly as possible will be important.

O’Connell will appreciate better than anyone that he is still learning a new craft. The experience of Meyer should be valuable and there’s no doubt O’Connell will seek out knowledge whenever and wherever he can.

So what can O’Connell expect in Paris?

The Stade Francais team Stade have had some interesting kits over the years. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Many rugby supporters will have strong memories of the flashy Max Guazzini era at Stade, when on-pitch success in eye-catching jerseys was matched by extravagant stunts off it.

Elephants, jetpacks, knights on white horses, breast-baring models, basketballers, a wrestling show with a full-size ring, Moulin Rouge dancers, motorbike jumps – all of these featured as Guazzini moved many of the club’s games to Stade de France, filling the stadium and putting on jaw-dropping shows.

Stade won the Top 14 five times between 1998 and 2007, as well as reaching and losing two Heineken Cup finals before serious financial troubles saw Guazzini sell his majority share in 2011.

The Savare family, who made their fortune in digital security, stepped in and saved the club from bankruptcy. They subsequently sunk millions into the club and Argentinian head coach Gonzalo Quesada helped the club to their most recent Top 14 success in 2015.

Even with the Savares’ investment, however, Stade were still struggling financially and their 2017 plan to merge the club with Parisian rivals Racing 92 was met with angry protests.

That move didn’t go ahead and current majority shareholder Hans-Peter Wild acquired his controlling stake in Stade in June of last year, promising to sink more than €30 million into the club over the next three seasons.

77-year-old Wild is a billionaire whose wealth derives from taking over his father’s company, Wild & Co, which he sold for more than €2.5 billion in 2014.

Nicknamed ‘the doctor,’ Wild already had history in rugby, having established the Wild Rugby Academy in his native Heidelberg in 2007. The academy was essentially formed to develop players to help turn Germany into a force and it hosts many national team training camps.

Valued as being among the 1,000 richest people in the world, Wild – who still owns Capri Sun – has put millions of euros into the academy and also bankrolls club side Heidelberger RK. Now, his rugby portfolio includes Stade.

While last season saw the Parisians narrowly stay above the relegation zone to finish the Top 14 campaign in a disappointing 12th, this summer has signified that the Wild era is now truly underway.

Heyneke Meyer Heyneke Meyer is Stade's new boss. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Former Springboks boss Meyer has come in as head coach and sporting director, while the club has made notable financial moves around its playing squad.

A host of the club’s best players have signed lucrative long-term contracts, while Stade paid around €700,000 to get France lock Yoann Maestri out of a pre-contract agreement with La Rochelle and join Stade instead.

The Parisians have also bought France centre Gaël Fickou out of the last year of his contract with Toulouse, paying a transfer fee reported to be around €800,000 even before Fickou’s wages are considered.

Springbok-capped scrum-half Piet Van Zyl has also come in, while Argentina out-half Nicolás Sánchez will join after the Rugby Championship ends in October. Further big signings are expected in the coming seasons.

Off the pitch, Meyer’s arrival was swiftly followed by the signatures of fellow South Africa natives John McFarland and Pieter de Villiers as defence coach and forwards coach, respectively.

McFarland worked with Meyer at the Bulls and the Springboks, while de Villiers was Meyer’s scrum coach with the Boks. Rather ideally, de Villiers was a prop for Stade Français throughout their successes in the Guazzini era and also won 68 caps for France.

Former Stade scrum-half Julien Dupuy was already at the club and has moved into a skills and kicking coaching role, while Prendergast has joined as the attack and backs coach as his reputation continues to grow.

The scrum-half Munster halfback began coaching full-time as Young Munster’s director of rugby and joined Grenoble as skills coach in 2013, eventually advancing into an attack coach role.

He moved on to Oyonnax as attack coach last season and despite the club’s relegation, their attacking game earned widespread plaudits and nearly saved them from the drop.

Prendergast’s coaching quality was recognised when Meyer offered him a role at Stade and the Limerick man will now work alongside an old friend in O’Connell.

Paul O'Connell before the game O'Connell is part of Stade's aim to rebuild. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

While Stade’s playing and coaching resources have been boosted, they are also making moves to improve elsewhere, including in terms of developing their young players after some barren seasons for their espoirs [U23] side.

They have partnered with local Pro D2 club Massy – famed for producing Mathieu Bastareaud, Yacouba Camara, Stade’s own Sekou Macalou, 18-year-old prodigy Jordan Joseph and many other stars – in order to catch up.

It will be fascinating to see how Meyer utilises players like captain Sergio Parisse, powerful centre Jonathan Danty, thrilling 20-year-old scrum-half Arthur Coville, imposing back row Willem Alberts, and front row strongmen Heinke van der Merwe and Paul Alo-Emile.

There will be a decision to make at out-half before the arrival of Sánchez, with Frenchman Jules Plisson vying with veteran Morné Steyn, who Meyer knows well from their time together with the Springboks.

Prendergast’s pass-heavy system of attack, based around the 2-4-2 set-up, was exciting to watch at Oyonnax and it will be intriguing to see how much scope the Irishman is given to put his ideas into place when Stade have the ball.

Attention will be on the lineout too for evidence of O’Connell’s touch but his impact may also come to light in many other areas.

- This article was updated at 4.20pm to include mention of Mark McDermott being Russia’s head coach.

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Murray Kinsella

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