Sunday 21 October 2018

The legend of Paulie - O'Connell on giving life in Paris a crack, his reluctance to get involved with Munster and prioritising family

O'Connell has taken the next step in his coaching journey as he begins a new chapter in Paris with Stade Francais, but he is unsure if he will remain in rugby for the rest of his career. The most important thing in his life right now is his young family and the amount of time he gets to spend with them

Paul O'Connell
Paul O'Connell
Former Ireland and Munster captain Paul O’Connell. Photo: INPHO
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Some mornings when he wakes up, Paul O'Connell is certain that coaching is the only thing he wants to do, then there are other less certain moments when the old familiar doubt creeps in, which makes it the last thing on his mind.

The next two years, with the option of a third, at Stade Francais will determine the direction of O'Connell's long-term future, yet there are other more important factors at play that will be taken into account.

Former Ireland and Munster captain Paul O’Connell has been to the forefront of Aldi’s successful Play Rugby programme during 2017/’18, which has attracted over 100,000 boys and girls who’ve taken part in the non-contact schools initiative across the country. Highlighting the growing popularity of the sport among girls – almost half of the children taking part (44%) were primary school girls aged between 7-12. Participation in the programme has increased by almost 50% since Aldi partnered with the IRFU in 2016. In total, 1,200 schools representing all 32 counties signed up for Aldi Play Rugby during 2017/’18 – a significant increase from 537 schools in 2016. 120 teachers were trained to deliver the programme with the help of expert coaching from the IRFU
Former Ireland and Munster captain Paul O’Connell has been to the forefront of Aldi’s successful Play Rugby programme during 2017/’18, which has attracted over 100,000 boys and girls who’ve taken part in the non-contact schools initiative across the country. Highlighting the growing popularity of the sport among girls – almost half of the children taking part (44%) were primary school girls aged between 7-12. Participation in the programme has increased by almost 50% since Aldi partnered with the IRFU in 2016. In total, 1,200 schools representing all 32 counties signed up for Aldi Play Rugby during 2017/’18 – a significant increase from 537 schools in 2016. 120 teachers were trained to deliver the programme with the help of expert coaching from the IRFU

Uprooting his young family to Paris remains a major concern, and given that the Limerick native has already dedicated so much time to his professional career, he is mindful of doing the same by going down the coaching route.

It helps however, that his wife Emily is fully supportive of the move, not to mention the fact that there is a sense of unfinished business in France.

Three years ago, O'Connell had committed to giving life in France a go, and when injury curtailed those Toulon plans, he always felt an urge to one day try again.

After a season with the Ireland U-20s during which the 38-year-old made a hugely positive impact, it was hardly a surprise when professional clubs came knocking on his door.

As was the case throughout his illustrious 14-year career, the offers were not in short supply for the former Munster, Ireland and Lions captain, yet as he has done since retiring, O'Connell took his time in carefully planning his next move.

"They asked me to get involved on a consultancy basis at the start," he says, explaining how the move to Stade came about.

"While I would have thought about it, I have done that a few times and it's actually hard to really put your stamp on things and it's hard to really, really learn.

"So that didn't really interest me and eventually they came back and said, 'Would you be interested in doing it full-time?'

Deeper

"I had just come back from the (U-20s) World Cup and I had probably been dipping my toe in a little bit for a while, and it was probably time to get in a bit deeper than just dipping my toe in.

"I just need to find out now if it's something I want to do or not. It's an opportunity to do it in a nice part of the world, to move away from Limerick for a short period, move the family over, learn the language, which is something I have wanted to do before, but unfortunately the Toulon move didn't work out.

"I wanted to give living in France a crack and I wanted to give learning the language a crack.

"There is a big project at Stade Francais. They have struggled over the last few years.

"Emily was supportive and said, 'Listen, you need to go and see if you want to do it and have a crack off it.'"

In truth, it is difficult to imagine O'Connell going on to become anything other than a hugely successful coach, but you can understand his reluctance to fully nail his colours to the mast just yet.

Overseeing Stade's lineout and ruck will ensure that he isn't front and centre of the operation, and working alongside experienced coaches like Heyneke Meyer and Pieter de Villiers, as well his old Young Munster team-mate Mike Prendergast, will help develop his learning.

Munster supporters continue to hope that, like Ronan O'Gara, O'Connell is taking the long road back to eventually ending up in a role with his home province, but put that idea to him, and the doubt creeps in again.

"For me there is no grand plan, there probably should be a grand plan," laughs O'Connell, recently home in Limerick for the Aldi National Community Games at UL. "There probably always was a grand plan when I was playing but at the moment there really isn't.

"We got a fantastic opportunity to go and live in Paris, to work with a great club that has ambitions to change. It isn't anything more complicated than that for us.

"I think you want to be very, very sure that you know what you want to do if you take over an Irish province.

"The scrutiny is so massive and I have so many great memories of Munster, you don't want to... it's not a fear because it's not something that I think about a lot. Certainly when I was playing, I thought 'Crikey, I would love to be coaching in Munster.'

"But I look at it now; Munster have been in the last two European Cup semi-finals. They have done really well in the PRO14 in the last two years but people still aren't happy.

"I played in a team with 10/11 first-choice internationals and our record wasn't much better than that.

"It's a very, very tough job and it's a tough place to be. You want to be very sure of what you are doing and very, very sure of yourself before you take it on.

"When I played in the Irish team, certainly for my first cap, I think 1-9 - and ROG got in ahead of (David) Humphreys soon after that - apart from Simon Easterby, were Munster players, first-choice internationals.

"Munster don't have that any more, so success was probably a lot easier back then, than it is now. You look at Leinster now, it is far more than 1-10. First choice and second choice in the squad are almost Leinster.

"So it's a very, very difficult job, that Munster job. I think the coaching staff over the last two years have done an amazing job but still people aren't happy. It's a very, very tough place to be."

The first few weeks in Paris have been challenging. When he first moved over in August, O'Connell lived with his life-long friend Prendergast until he sorted his own family house, but working long hours is not conducive to finding suitable accommodation in Paris.

Yet if anything, that is a sign of O'Connell's relentless work ethic. He might only be in the door at Stade, but he has wasted little time in getting stuck in, which makes him ponder what it will be like mid-season when his family have settled in their new surrounds.

"I think the big thing about coaching is your work is never done," O'Connell maintains. "Even if you are finished preparing the team for that week or you feel good about how you have prepared the team, you should probably then be watching other teams - best practice in other places, you have recruitment, so you need to be watching other players.

"I think the biggest challenge is going to be trying to have a family and spend as much time with them as you can and try and do the job as well as you can.

"For me, that's the thing that worries me most about coaching - it's the amount of time it's going to take.

Suffer

"The ones to suffer are your family. I think the more you do it and the better you get at it, the quicker you can get it done and the more time you can spend with your family.

"But certainly at the start, it's probably like translating something from English to French - when you're fluent in French, you can do it really quickly. When you're only beginning it takes a long time.

"Hopefully with coaching I can move that a little, whereby I can get my work done at the weekends and still manage to spend time with the family. That's the biggest worry about coaching for me."

For now, it's all about immersing himself in a new environment and overcoming whatever hurdles come his way further down the line.

A positive start to the season has helped ease the doubts. Stade won both of their opening games - against Perpignan, before they backed it up a week later with another convincing win over Bordeaux.

The Parisians do, however, face their toughest task yet this evening, when they take on Clermont in a top-of-the-table clash away from home.

Racked by self-doubt in his early days as a player, O'Connell has learned to channel that in the right manner, and he believes he will have to do so again during his time in France.

"I think you just do your best no matter what the situation is or how high or low the pressure is," he adds.

"You've got to get in there and do your best at the job. It is obviously very challenging. There is the language challenge. I suppose there is a lack-of-experience challenge for me.

"Even though I know the lineout and the ruck, teaching it is a different thing, so it's trying to learn how to teach these things is what the difficult challenge is.

"But you get in there and you do your best. You spend as much time as you possibly can at it, but you're also not sacrificing family time. You let the cards fall then.

"I probably would have been very, very nervous in my earlier years, but I have kind of found out over time that all you can do is your best at something, and keep trying to make your best better.

"If I can do that, then I will be in a good place."

Irish Independent

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