Monday 10 December 2018

Paul O'Connell: 'We were never smart enough against New Zealand'

O'Connell believes leadership sets Ireland's players apart as he adapts to life as a coach

Paul O'Connell was speaking at The Off The Ball Roadshow with Heineken Rugby Club - for more information, see offtheball.com/events. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul O'Connell was speaking at The Off The Ball Roadshow with Heineken Rugby Club - for more information, see offtheball.com/events. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The rush hour traffic whizzes by on a rainy Dublin evening and only the Stade Francais back-pack gives Paul O'Connell away as he briskly steps his way around a Dame Street corner towards the stage entrance of the Olympia Theatre, an Irish sporting icon hiding in plain sight.

His frame is carrying a little less bulk than it used to, but there is no mistaking the former second-row when he steps off the streets and into the lights ahead of his appearance on stage later in the evening.

It's not long ago when these weeks were about doing everything within his power to perform at the weekend, the routine of Carton House and the Shelbourne Hotel. The bus to the stadium, the Test match itself.

Now, the international window has afforded him a trip home from his new life in Paris where he coaches with Stade Francais. A chance to reconnect his family with Limerick and keep his hand in with a few media engagements.

It's been more than three years since he last laced his boots, but he's not afraid to say that he misses the buzz that came with pitting himself against the best, but he is at peace with the fact that his time has passed.

"Ah yeah, I'd love to be (involved)," he says leaning against a make-up table in a dressing-room at the old Dublin institution on Tuesday. "But I'd be very happy with my time.

"I played until I was 35, I never thought I was going to get to 35 but at the same time, being up in Dublin now - the players will have been in Carton House today, off tomorrow, back there and then into the Shelbourne on Thursday.

"And when you're into the Shelbourne, it's obviously an amazing hotel but you know it's a big game and it's an exciting time. So, you definitely miss those occasions. It wouldn't be putting me in bad form."

He's still a draw; later in the evening 1,200 will pack out the theatre to hear his thoughts on Saturday's meeting with New Zealand.

They were an opponent he faced nine times with Ireland and the Lions and beating the All Blacks was one of the few itches he left unscratched.

"Ah, I don't think we were smart enough really. That's one of the things about Ireland now, they're just so smart about how they go about everything," he recalls of the seven defeats in New Zealand and the final two in Dublin. "We probably didn't have that back then, we didn't have the strength in depth that they certainly have now. I go back to that game down in South Africa when we won the first Test and made five or six changes for the second Test - we'd never have done that.

"That's just ended up creating... and the way the IRFU has managed the provinces with certain players moved on maybe controversially - it's ended up creating this massive amount of depth. That depth has created a massive amount of competition and competition makes you better.

"So, I don't know, we were probably good enough to win more than we did but my record doesn't make for great reading. I think I played them nine times and never beat them.

"We had those two games in 2006 when Munster had won the Heineken Cup and we were all in a good place going down there, certainly the Munster players were. The first game was in Hamilton and we should have won that game, we could have won the second one as well.

"While I may have had games where the scoreline was closer, those two really stick out. The 2013 game, obviously sticks out as well. We should have put the nail in the coffin that day, but we didn't do it."

He recalls the past with perfect clarity, but his immediate future lies in coaching.

After a role with the Munster Academy and a stint coaching the Ireland U-20s forwards last season, he took the plunge last summer and moved to Paris to take up a role with Stade as part of Heyneke Meyer's new-look coaching ticket.

The capital city club are third in the Top 14 after nine games and O'Connell is enjoying the experience, but he still hasn't quite made up his mind if coaching is his long-term calling.

"I'm still a bit suck it and see, it's addictive," he says. "If I didn't have a wife and kids I could stay in there until 10 or 11 o'clock every night, talking rugby, watching rugby and it's very addictive.

"To look at teams that do things well, to try and unlock how they did it... because we're all trying to do the same stuff, but some teams seem to be able to get every single person in their squad on board with it.

"That's a really big challenge, but one of the things that we probably underestimate in Ireland is the leadership aspect we have amongst our players.

"For a coach trying to get things done, having a player or players driving the message, that really want clarity, 'Give me the message as clearly as possible so I can make them do it'... it's really important and we have that in abundance in Ireland.

"I think it has been developed by the IRFU, by various coaches. I remember Deccy (Kidney) really didn't care what were doing as long as the players owned it and were driving it. It goes as far back as him.

"That's a really important part of the game that I would have really underestimated that we have in Ireland."

Leadership is something O'Connell knows plenty about and what he has come to appreciate the strength of that facet of Irish rugby since he left.

There is a self-belief about a whole generation of young Irish players who know nothing but success.

Not that he reckons that winning mentality is something new.

"It's a whole number of things, obviously Joe has a massive effect on all of these things but look at the work that Colin McEntee has done at Academy level, every bit of development the IRFU seem to do," he explains.

"They put leadership and the development of players, not just as players but as leaders and students of the game... the sports psychology part of it - they put that at the forefront of their development.

"While I've only a small experience of France that's probably why they're a bit behind. There's logical reasons why they're behind, but I do think that's a big part of it.

"There's a load of little reasons dotted around, a load of good decisions that the IRFU seem to make. Like any organisation they get some wrong, but they seem to get an awful lot right as well."

As a player, he was a man who demanded high standards of himself and his team-mates and there have been plenty of examples of figures of a similar stature who have struggled to convey that message to lesser players when they take up the whistle.

So far, O'Connell is enjoying the challenge and finds the players responsive; even if he has plenty to learn.

"I find the more you ask of them the better they are," he says of the Stade players. "It's trying to deliver the message, for me, is the hard part. That's why coaches that are teachers are good coaches.

"If you go and work with Munster now and sit in with Jerry Flannery or Felix Jones or go and work with Leinster, Ulster or whatever you will pick up the rugby knowledge.

"You won't be far behind them in terms of rugby knowledge, but the ability to transfer that knowledge is the real challenge.

"Being good at English is a really important part of the job, being able to teach people is a really important part of the job. Being able to build relationships with people, which is hard when you don't have their language - that's a really important part.

"I would say those three things are more important than the rugby knowledge, because any one can pick up the rugby knowledge really.

"But even looking at some of the plays Ireland do, teams from all over the PRO14 and the Top 14 try and copy them a week or two later. They know exactly what the play is, but there isn't necessarily someone there who can teach it like a Joe Schmidt can, a Stuart Lancaster can at Leinster, Felix Jones at Munster...

"That, for me, is the biggest challenge or learning curve. I found it interesting to read that guy Greg McWilliams in Yale. When he decided he wanted to be a rugby coach he went and did HDip teaching qualification. A lot of these things are really only dawning on me. I definitely went in with ideas in my head of what I think works, but then over time you definitely end up becoming your own man and then you keep evolving.

"I've no pre-concieved way of playing and, even if I did, I'm not the attack or defence coach, so I just try and help those parts of the game and pick up bits and pieces as well."

He'll be in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, a civilian with a deep knowledge of what the combatants are going through. He misses it, but O'Connell has a new challenge to get stuck into and it sounds like he's relishing it.

Paul O'Connell was speaking at The Off The Ball Roadshow with Heineken Rugby Club - for more information, see offtheball.com/events

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