Tuesday 23 July 2019

Schmidt hails skipper O'Connell's 'drive and intelligence'

Coach urges Ireland not to get distracted by 100-cap landmark

Joe Schmidt believes nobody in the Ireland team will be distracted by the landmark being reached by Paul O’Connell
Joe Schmidt believes nobody in the Ireland team will be distracted by the landmark being reached by Paul O’Connell
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

One by one, the Irish squad have lined up and answered the question with the caveat "there's not a lot I can add to what has been said about Paulie. . ."

They have tried manfully, however, to pay tribute to their captain ahead of his entry into an elite club of Irish centurions, joining his old comrades John Hayes, Ronan O'Gara and Brian O'Driscoll.

Rory Best hailed his leadership and work ethic, Devin Toner spoke about the rite of passage of playing against him, before undergoing a lineout education since packing down alongside the Munster man.

Yesterday, it was the turn of the coach. Joe Schmidt's first move when getting the job was appointing Paul O'Connell his captain and their partnership has reaped huge rewards.

The perfectionist driving standards with a whistle in his hands is working in tandem with the man who asks his team-mates for more every day he takes to the training pitch.

The result is an Irish side standing on the brink of a second successive Six Nations and a record 11th win in a row.


Both know that the veteran second-row can't go on forever and Schmidt said he hasn't discussed O'Connell's post-World Cup plans with his skipper, but in the here and now they are forming a formidable team.

For three seasons, they operated on different sides of a parochial divide and it all came to a head in 2013 when Schmidt took a strong line on the incident in which the Munster man escaped punishment for his inadvertent but dangerous kick to Dave Kearney's head.

Any danger that bad blood would seep into the relationship when the New Zealander got the top job dissipated quite quickly.

"The person I have come to know is exactly the person I thought he was from afar," Schmidt said of the 35-year-old former Lions captain.

"He has got incredible self-drive, in an incredible intelligent man about the game, about particular aspects of the game. He is incredibly driven to improve his own performance and thereby leads others in doing that.

"That is what I have learnt even more. I suppose that has been confirmed to me in the period of time that we have spent working together.

"It makes all the coaches' lives easier. He and (forwards coach) Simon Easterby have a fantastic working relationship. They played and deciphered lineouts and deciphered aspects of the game when they were playing together and now to be doing it as a coach/player, that is a really positive aspect of it for us."

Even before the Kiwi took over, he set in train a process of building a leadership corps in the Irish ranks that would be durable and proficient when the heat comes on.

He began to groom younger members of the squad on the 2013 tour to North America and then integrated the returning Lions when they came into camp the following November, with O'Connell at the head of the organisation.

That doesn't mean the Young Munster man takes everything on, and his coach explained how he spreads the load.

"One of the other things is that Paul doesn't assume every leadership responsibility, he delegates and he encourages and so that is one of the fantastic things for the coaches as well, it means Jamie (Heaslip) has a definite role," Schmidt said.

"He has some particular things that he leads on, that Johnny Sexton does, that Rob Kearney does, Peter O'Mahony, we have got a number of provincial leaders - Rory Best - who step up and take different roles of leadership so I think of the best things about Paul is that he doesn't try to carry the whole weight of leadership on his own two shoulders.

"He is driven to make sure his performance is as good as he can make it and then he delegates some of that leadership but certainly grabs some of that leadership to take the team forward."

Of course, O'Connell won't be asked to do anything on his own at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow as he leads his side towards another Six Nations title.

While the lock is Ireland talisman and spiritual leader, Sexton (left) is the man charged with guiding them around the park. Their decisions in tandem with one another are key.

The fly-half comes into the game under the shadow of yet another injury, this time his troublesome hamstring, but his coach is confident the muscle will stand up to the scrutiny of Test rugby.

"He is fully fit and he's a pretty good judge of his own body," Schmidt said.

"He's been a professional rugby player for a lot of years now. He's a 29-year-old man now who knows his body pretty well now. I know Johnny very well and if I don't think he's fully fit then (I wouldn't play him)."

O'Connell isn't the only one celebrating a milestone this weekend; Sexton will win his 50th cap and Cian Healy will join him off the bench.

"It's a massive game for a whole lot of reasons. Obviously the amount of respect that Paul O'Connell has in the environment, and even Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy likely to be involved in their 50th caps. . ." Schmidt said.

"It's an opportunity to do what no Irish team has ever done in the history of the game. The danger is being distracted by those sort of things."

The presence of Wayne Barnes as referee adds a layer of intrigue to an already interesting match-up, given he took charge of last year's meeting between the sides and also refereed Ireland's win over France a month ago.

Schmidt is concerned at how the English official interpreted the scrum in a game where his side were penalised an above-average 11 times.

"A number of those (penalties) were around the scrum which was probably the disconcerting thing," he said.

"If you get two positive teams you can have a really positive scrummaging contest and there were very few scrum penalties.

"The vast majority of scrums (against England) were played off and we just felt that it was really difficult for Wayne (during the France game) because he was trying to find solutions to a very messy area of the game.

"I know that in the past it has been problematic (for Wales). It only took two minutes for the first scrum penalty to happen in our game last year.

"We'd hope that we can avoid a scrum fest or a penalty fest and I'm pretty sure they are keen to play against us.

"They have got some super players out there. I'd hope that it's a good contest."

It is undoubtedly an area of concern, but Schmidt's has the right man on the ground to manage the situation in his centurion skipper.

Irish Independent

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