Sport Gaelic Football

Tuesday 21 November 2017

'Hey Paul, who's ROG?' piped up McKeever at O'Connell

Joe Kernan

I always liked to keep abreast of what's happening in other sports, so I decided to invite Paul O'Connell to talk to Armagh in 2006. I love the way Munster play their rugby and have a special admiration for Paul, who is a giant of a man in so many ways.

We were going to Dunboyne Castle Hotel for a weekend, so I rang up Paul and asked him if he would come up and give a talk. He was a big hit with the lads.

Mind you, his talk wasn't without its funny moments. In the course of various stories, he mentioned many of his Munster colleagues by their nicknames, including Axel (Anthony Foley), ROG (Ronan O'Gara) and Strings (Peter Stringer).

At one point he was interrupted by Paddy McKeever, who piped up: "Hey Paul, who's ROG?" Typical Paddy. O'Gara might have played for Munster, Ireland and the Lions, but Paddy hadn't heard the ROG tag. Either that or he was pretending not to, which, I suspect, was the case.

O'Connell wasn't the first rugby person I turned to for advice. I invited kicking coach, David Alred, to our training camp in La Manga in 2002.

He worked on all aspects of kicking and some players found it very helpful. Obviously, I was keen to have him work with Oisin McConville, whose place-kicking was so vital to us, but it didn't work out at all. The more Oisin tried the Alred way, the worse he got. so, in the end, we told Oisin to just go back to what he had been doing before. Oisin had enough confidence is his own kicking, so there was no point in trying to change him.

The following year we went to Bath for a few days and I invited along another famous rugby man, Shaun Edwards. He was a proven winner and one of the areas I asked him to deal with was how to keep performance at a high level once you'd made the breakthrough, as we had in 2002.

Bringing in outsiders was something I always felt had been beneficial, but, then, I had practical experience of the closed-mind syndrome from my playing days. When we reached the 1982 All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry, a few of us thought it would be a good idea to bring in a successful, experienced outsider to give a talk.

The response from Armagh officialdom wasn't quite what we had expected. In fact, it was met first with silence and then with the baffling comment that we didn't want anybody stealing our thunder.

"That's all very well, but what if there is no thunder?" I said.

There was no answer, nor was there any thunder after the semi-final which we lost. I felt the players had been let down because some people were afraid that, if we were successful, an outsider might have got some of the credit. I'd had someone like Peter McDermott from Meath in mind, a man with vast experience as a player and coach.

One of my other great heroes has always been that outstanding Down man, Sean O'Neill. Growing up in the '60s and early-'70s, Sean was the icon, the man every kid wanted to imitate.

I got to know him when he was managing Ulster and always had the utmost respect for him, so, when I took over in Crossmaglen, he was one of the first people I invited to talk to the squad. We were honoured to have him. After all, he was a legend of Gaelic football and here he was coming down to 'Cross' to talk to a group who, apparently, had this daft dream about winning an All-Ireland title.

He's the most positive man you will ever come across and if you didn't feel better and more informed after listening to him, you had a problem.

Irish Independent

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