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'He was obsessed with the breakdown, particularly when he got involved with Schmidt'

Speaking on The42 Rugby Weekly, Mike Sherry and Bernard Jackman detailed what Paul O’Connell will bring to Ireland.

Paul O'Connell has been heavily influenced by Joe Schmidt.
Paul O'Connell has been heavily influenced by Joe Schmidt.
Image: ©INPHO

THE TV DIRECTORS for Sunday’s Six Nations game will already have their instructions in place regarding Paul O’Connell.

One camera is usually designated to stay trained on the coaches’ box so it would be a major surprise if O’Connell doesn’t feature prominently among the images broadcast from Cardiff.

Just over six years on from his Ireland playing days being ended by a horrific hamstring injury in a World Cup game against France at the Principality Stadium, O’Connell will be back there as the new Ireland forwards coach.

The Limerick man’s appointment was naturally front and centre on today’s edition of The42 Rugby Weekly podcast as Bernard Jackman and Mike Sherry joined Murray Kinsella to preview the 2021 Six Nations.

Having finished third in the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup last year, Ireland are aiming to close the gap on France and England, with their new coaching addition relevant to the areas Andy Farrell’s side need to improve in.

Bernard: “The Paul O’Connell factor leads to what they need to be better at. Their lineout needs to be better, their lineout maul needs to be more of a weapon.

“There’s also been a bit of debate – was our attacking breakdown underperforming because our attack was poor, or was our attack poor because of our attacking breakdown?

“Paul has been given the mandate to go in and improve that and also the hope is that our defence will become stronger with Simon Easterby just having sole responsibility in that and specialising in that.

“With Mike Catt, you expect to see further improvement in our attacking game, but the key focus areas will be our attacking breakdown and our ability to win quality ball off the lineout to launch off or be able to turn mauls into attacking opportunities and points.” 

paul-oconnell-with-james-ryan O'Connell with Ireland lock James Ryan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

So what is it about the Ireland lineout and maul that actually needs to improve? 

Bernard: “I didn’t think we had real variety in it. As an example, look at the Munster maul against Clermont [in December]. They were probably a smaller pack, yet they were really smart in terms of how they mauled, the construction of that maul, where they shifted the point of contact.

“You saw Ireland against France last autumn throwing the ball to the front, trying to shift drive down the front, but the actual construction of it wasn’t smart, there wasn’t enough detail in it, we were slow in getting set and by the time we did get set, we were already getting marched towards the touchline and got thrown over the touchline.

“That was a huge psychological boost. Then there was another example where we threw to the back, tried to shift drive and allowed Gaël Fickou, their winger, to come in and destroy it.

“We just weren’t as detailed or as nailed-on in those areas as we had been back in 2017/2018, where it was a big weapon for us, where we were able to win penalties, kick to the corner, and convert that into further penalties, yellow cards, or tries.

“We’re not the biggest pack in the world, so if we are going to have an attacking maul weapon, our construction and detail and ability to find weaknesses in the opposition’s maul D is going to be crucial.

“That’s an area of the game Paul was very good at, he enjoyed it, and I’m excited to see that. It will take a bit of time but I would like to see improvements in that.” 

Mike Sherry played with O’Connell in Munster and outlined just how big a work-rate O’Connell brought to his lineout training.

Mike: “It just drove him on every week, he was constantly looking at footage. It’s the smaller intricacies of how you build your maul, what angles you go at, where you go at the weakness.

“It’s not just where you win the ball and a straight maul or shift maul and it’s eight lads pushing against eight lads. There are certain ways of building mauls and exposing weaknesses depending on the trends of how they defend – if hold people off, if they have people down the blindside.

paul-oconnell-bj-botha-and-mike-sherry O'Connell and Sherry playing for Munster in 2012. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He has spent a long time not involved in the daily grind of coming up with tactics and plans, he has been able to step back from rugby. He would have spent a lot of time on his laptop going over international games, seeing what the trends were.

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“The other great point Birch made was around the attacking breakdown. Paul was absolutely obsessed with the breakdown when he was a player, particularly when he got involved with Joe Schmidt up in Ireland camp – it translated down to what he brought to Munster.

“He was already hot on it but when he saw the detail Schmidt brought into his attacking breakdown and the difference it brought to the attacking game, he tried to implement that with us in Munster.

“He will definitely have certain thoughts on that and I would expect to see an improvement and a speed of ball that hasn’t maybe been there for the last year.”

Of course, O’Connell is a relatively inexperienced coach. He worked with the Munster academy before a stint as Ireland U20s forwards coach, then a season with Stade Français in the Top 14 that ended in 2019.

But Bernard and Mike both feel O’Connell had strong coaching traits even when he was playing, so expect him to comfortably adapt to the demands in Ireland camp.

Mike: “He had a brilliant mix of being able to fire people up and also being able to get into the detail and walk through things.

“He was intimidating, there’s no doubt about it – as a young guy coming in, it was really intimidating to work with someone with such high standards but he had a really good mix of being able to take people aside, build up trust and confidence in yourself, and give endless time to be able to talk through things, walk through things, practice them before and after sessions.

“He will bring all of that to his role. Even as a player, he was really 50/50 as a coach too. He worked hand-in-hand with the forwards coach on lineouts and scrums, he was also massively into scrums as a second row.

“He is relatively inexperienced but as an inexperienced coach, I don’t think you could ask for someone with more passion and experience as a player to translate it over.” 

paul-oconnell O'Connell previously worked with the Ireland U20s. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Bernard: “Paul did a huge amount of work on the laptop but the gift he had, I felt from seeing him in Irish camp, was the ability to simplify it then.

“I saw him speaking at a leadership summit and he showed a photograph of the post-it note that he used to write the lineouts on. There was a huge amount of work done in the background to get down to this menu of 10 options.

“So if you were the hooker or involved in the lineout, you benefited from that homework and then he was able to streamline it down to the 10 options he needed to win quality ball or to be able to maul off or exit off.

“That will be really helpful for Iain Henderson and James Ryan, being able to understand the process of seeing where the weaknesses are, looking at what we do, what our strengths are, then creating a streamlined menu with get-out options.”

Today’s episode of The42 Rugby Weekly also saw the lads discuss Wales wing Josh Adams’ suspension for breaking Covid-19 protocols, the possibility of Andrew Porter playing at loosehead, and the make-up of Ireland’s back row after the injury to Caelan Doris.

They also chatted about defending champions England’s clash with Scotland, and how an exciting French team will be aiming for trophy success this year.

You can listen to The42 Rugby Weekly below or on your favourite podcast app.

Bernard Jackman, Mike Sherry, and Murray Kinsella chat about gender reveal parties, Paul O’Connell’s qualities, and the 2021 Six Nations:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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