Friday 22 March 2019

'We are taking a bit of pain at the moment' - Paul O'Connell welcomes Ireland's 'bite of reality'

Former captain insists current squad are better placed than ever heading to a World Cup as demands on Schmidt’s side have propelled expectations in similar manner to that of the New Zealand public

Paul O’Connell with Left Wing hosts Luke Fitzgerald and Will Slattery
Paul O’Connell with Left Wing hosts Luke Fitzgerald and Will Slattery
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It was only after Paul O'Connell had left Murrayfield that the penny really dropped and he was able to fully appreciate what Ireland had achieved by beating Scotland.

Most supporters would have been in the same boat as they attempted to dissect a strange game that failed to really ignite, yet was one that Ireland never looked like they were going to lose.

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In times gone by, the result was all that mattered, yet since Joe Schmidt arrived on these shores and forced the national side to rethink how they view themselves on the world stage, that notion has changed.

O'Connell was central to driving those standards in the early days and since he hung up his boots following the 2015 World Cup, those expectations have been taken to dizzying new heights.

An away win against Scotland is not to be sniffed at, particularly coming off the back of a convincing home defeat to England, yet it wasn't until Martin Johnson argued the case that O'Connell could understand where the former England captain was coming from.

You see, O'Connell had fallen into the same kind of trap that many of us had done, as he put almost his entire focus on Ireland's performance rather than the end result on the road.

Expectations had been somewhat punctured after the Six Nations opener as the hype train tipped the brakes.

Those who fretted that Ireland had peaked a year too early were left wondering if Schmidt's side were ever genuine World Cup contenders. O'Connell, however, paints a different picture.

"I think they want the hype to be insane," the 108-times capped former lock maintains.

"I mean, there is a national inquest when New Zealand lose. Funnily enough, the success the boys have had, the same thing is being created here now.

Pain

"I think we are taking a bit of pain at the moment, even the game against Scotland.

"We have become so performance-focused with Ireland under Joe that we don't think about winning.

"I was working on the BBC with Martin Johnson and he thought it was a great win.

"It was only after the game I kind of went, 'Actually, you know what, we didn't play well but it is great to win in Murrayfield, Scotland having won seven games in a row there, a really good Scotland team that had us on the rack in the first half'.

"We are so performance-focused all of the time that we can be unhappy even when we win.

"It is a really good thing, but at the same time it's not bad to beat Scotland away from home, not playing well with a load of injuries as well."

The talk at the team hotel all week has been focused on Ireland's search for a more complete performance. The defeat to England, or perhaps more importantly, the manner of it, will linger for a while yet but ultimately, it has offered a sense of perspective seven months out from Japan.

The Six Nations championship may prove to be beyond Ireland's reach but Schmidt has made no secret of the fact that everything is about building towards the World Cup.

"It's not the worst thing in the world to happen after the year we've had heading into the World Cup," O'Connell reasons.

"It's a little bit of a bite of reality, which maybe we (public) needed but I doubt the coaches or the players needed. But I think it probably does put us on a surer footing heading into the World Cup.

"You do learn a lot when you lose and that tactical kicking game that England did, it's better off you figure it out and how to defend it and maybe how to add a little bit of it to your own game now during the Six Nations rather than during the World Cup.

"I don't think we played well, which can happen. We are not and there is no team in the world who are unbeatable.

"Maybe we were beginning to think that about ourselves. I doubt the players were and I doubt the coaches were."

While there was a marked all-round improvement against Scotland, Ireland's 'big' players have yet to hit top form, which is why Schmidt has largely named such a strong team for tomorrow's clash in Rome.

O'Connell, who is half-way through his first season working as Stade Francais' forwards coach, continues to monitor James Ryan's progress - although the talented lock is one of those who is given a rare weekend off.

Such was the 22-year-old's incredible impact last year, he is becoming more of a marked man by opposition teams, which his predecessor has noticed.

"He's incredible and he works incredibly hard for his teams," O'Connell says of Ryan.

"When a lot of players seem to run into brick walls in those carries around rucks, he seems to have a bit of footwork and seems to be able to get his head through and leg drive for two or three metres.

"It's almost harder to make than the 10 metres that another player might make out wide.

"He probably is a bit targeted now. I think teams probably tighten up a little bit defensively around him. They realise that you need to tackle him with two people, the same as CJ Stander.

"But his progress has been amazing. It's great he is calling lineouts because you need to be in those big pressure games. He probably needs a few bad days as well because that's when you really, really learn in terms of lineout calling.

Pleasure

"He's a pleasure to watch. He doesn't give away penalties. A lot of very good second-rows who are all-action, a bit like (Maro) Itoje, at times he can give away a few penalties.

"James Ryan doesn't really do that. He's a very smart player and he is getting great coaching.

"He's working with Joe Schmidt at Ireland, Andy Farrell and Simon Easterby. He's back with Leinster then and he's working with Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.

"You have this great, talented guy who is incredibly focused and committed and then on top of that, he is getting great information, so the sky is the limit."

We are unlikely to learn a huge amount against an Italian side who continue to struggle, but it does at least provide Schmidt's men with a chance to fine-tune their cohesion that has been lacking.

Their tendency to start tournaments slowly remains a cause for concern, particularly because their toughest pool game in Japan is first up against Scotland.

For all of that however, O'Connell is adamant that they will be the best-prepared Ireland team heading to a World Cup.

"I think Ireland under Joe have certainly been getting the best out of ourselves and our best has been getting better," he adds.

"The challenge now is to improve a little bit again.

"Certainly one of the improvements they have already gotten is a bit more depth and strength in the squad.

"I think they have to find a little bit of their mojo now again in attack in the next few weeks.

"The players are top-class. They have more experience. They are longer with Joe than we were with Joe in 2015. There is great coaching now as well in the provinces.

"The Leinster players leave Joe and they go back to Stuart Lancaster, who is an incredible coach.

"I think Felix (Jones) and Jerry (Flannery) down in Munster are doing a great job.

"I love as a coach, watching Connacht at the moment. Not to mention their attacking play but their forward play and their lineout is brilliant.

"And Ulster have gotten their ship together under Dan McFarland.

"Ireland are in a very good place in terms of the strength-in-depth they have, the experience they have, the coaching they have, the pressure they are put under from the strength and conditioning, nutrition point of view.

"I think they are way further down the track than what we were in 2015."

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