Monday 21 January 2019

Astute O’Connell was always destined to bring on-field inspiration into a coaching role


Paul O’Connell. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul O’Connell. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The offers have not been in short supply and in the end, the impression given was that when the right opportunity came along, Paul O'Connell would jump at it.

Taking on an assistant role with the Ireland U-20s ticks a lot of boxes for the legendary Ireland lock and most crucially of all, it will act as the next step en route, to what most people believe, will be the top job at Munster.

Since retiring last year, O'Connell has understandably been reluctant to jump into the deep end of the coaching world.

He has seen others make the same mistake and he wasn't about to follow their lead.

The Limerick native has always been honest in admitting that he is unsure if he wants to become a full-time coach and the U-20s set-up, which is becoming more and more professional, will give him a taste of what it is like.

O'Connell took on an advisory role with Munster in July of last year and it will come as no surprise to learn that the work he has been doing behind the scenes with the province's young players has been second to none.

The IRFU have never made any secret of their desire to have O'Connell (right) working as part of their system and they have been trying to tempt him into taking on a role with the U-20s for some time now.

In a new-look coaching structure headed by Noel McNamara, O'Connell's role with the U-20s will see him mainly working with the forwards and in particular, focusing on lineouts and the breakdown.

We have increasingly seen in the last few years how important the age-grade level is in this country and this season's crop are set to reap the rewards of working with one of the most sought-after names in the world.

Leicester Tigers were the most recent club to fail to lure O'Connell across the pond. Matt O'Connor had hoped that he would join the Premiership club but instead, he joined a long list of unsuccessful suitors.

Last year, in another shrewd move, O'Connell took his family on a skiing holiday in the French Alps, and just so happened to be staying near Grenoble.

That afforded him the chance to spend a couple of weeks working with the Top 14 club's pack, then under Bernard Jackman and his former team-mate Mike Prendergast.

Such was the impression that he made in a short space of time, Grenoble were desperate for O'Connell to come on board but he thought better of it.

Judging by the direction in which the club has since gone, it was certainly a smart move but then again, that won't come as a surprise to anyone either.

O'Connell built his glittering career on making wise decisions, on and off the field, and the expectation now is that he will do the same in this new gig.

For all of the advisory work he has done with the Munster Academy, match scenarios are a different beast.

This time last year, the former Ireland and Lions captain took on his first official coaching role when he acted as an assistant for a Munster Development side's clash against the Ireland U-20s at Thomond Park.

Fast-forward 12 months and he now finds himself in the opposite coaching box, in a more high-profile position.

O'Connell has not yet been directly involved with the Ireland U-20s at their training camps but this afternoon in Donnybrook (12.0), he will begin his new role when his side takes on a Leinster Development outfit.

There have been few better motivators in Irish rugby than O'Connell and the players who are about to embark on this journey with him are relishing the opportunity to take on board his renowned words of wisdom.

It is possible that David Nucifora, the IRFU's performance director, offered him the head-coach position, but given the general up-and-down nature of the U-20s, this would seem like the latest in a long line of smart decisions that has been made with a much more long-term plan in mind.

"You don't want to waste a resource like Paul O'Connell, he's got a lot to offer Irish rugby going forward," Nucifora said last year.

"We're just working with Paul to work out the best way of utilising what he brings to our game."

The IRFU have got their man and the obvious next step is for Munster to get theirs.

With Ronan O'Gara headed for the Crusaders to further his coaching CV, O'Connell will do the same over the next six months with the Ireland U-20s, as they build towards the Six Nations and June's Junior World Cup in France.

"Paulie will be an exceptionally good coach and it's no secret that we want to team up, it's about getting the right opportunity," O'Gara told the Irish Independent last season.

The stars are slowly but surely aligning and while Munster's dream team may be a while away yet, O'Connell's latest, significant step on the coaching ladder will give supporters hope that it will indeed one day happen.

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