Tuesday 22 October 2019

O'Connell: It's tough to learn in a very big coaching job

Former Ireland captain tells Cian Tracey why he is happy to hone his coaching skills with the U-20s

Paul O’Connell
Paul O’Connell
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The offers have not been in short supply, and while for a brief period, post-retirement, Paul O'Connell toyed with the idea of turning his full attention to interests outside rugby, a few minutes in his company confirms that his passion for the sport burns as strong as ever.

For someone with such a wealth of knowledge as O'Connell, it was always going to be difficult to keep him away from rugby, but the measured approach that he is taking in the coaching world is to be admired.

Over two years since he hung up his boots, the Limerick native could so easily be now employed in a coaching position on a full-time basis, but he won't jump into anything until he feels ready.

The IRFU have never made any secret of their desire to have the former Ireland captain in their system, and taking on the position as forwards coach with the U-20s made sense.


Munster supporters still live in hope that one day the dream coaching ticket of O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara will take over.

O'Connell with Aoibhinn Burke, Jayden Carmody, Aislinn O’Dea and Lee Kirsh from in his role as ambassador for the Aldi rugby programme and the Community Games
O'Connell with Aoibhinn Burke, Jayden Carmody, Aislinn O’Dea and Lee Kirsh from in his role as ambassador for the Aldi rugby programme and the Community Games

When he arrived in Limerick, Johann van Graan wasted little time in setting up a meeting with O'Connell, and the South African head coach was impressed by his deep understanding of the Munster and Irish rugby cultures.

"It's nothing beyond that but I think if something crops up in the future and it's something that hopefully is right for me and for them (Munster), something may happen," O'Connell tells the Irish Independent, with regard to returning as coach.

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At the other side of the globe, O'Gara is beginning his own new journey with the Crusaders, and O'Connell admits the former out-half is much further along the line than he is.

O'Gara recently explained how he would find it tough to coach players whom he shared a dressing-room with, and his long-time team-mate is in agreement.

"I think different personalities probably find it more difficult than others," O'Connell explains.

"I would probably be similar to ROG in that I would be very good friends with an awful lot of the Munster guys.

"I'd say there is nothing worse then having to drop a player - a guy that's working his ass off all week.

"I think if you have you a really long-term relationship with a guy, it's probably a very difficult thing to do.

"So there is a bit of that but I do think certain people can do it. Like Leo (Cullen), obviously hasn't struggled with it at Leinster. Felix (Jones) and Jerry (Flannery) haven't struggled with it in Munster.

"I think if you are a coach, every decision you make is with honesty and integrity, and you have an awful lot of facts and work behind every decision, it's probably easier to do, but it's still difficult. It's probably more suited to some personalities than it is to others."

Working with the Ireland U-20s allows O'Connell to further his coaching experience at his own pace. It being a part-time gig suits, as does the fact that there is no recruitment involved.

Head coach Noel McNamara, who has worked with Ireland throughout age-grade level, had been trying to get O'Connell involved for some time, before he eventually came on board with the U-20s before Christmas.

It's a decision that the 38-year-old made on his own terms despite the more lucrative offers that were coming his way.

"I'm trying to do something that I am really interested in and that I really enjoy," O'Connell maintains.

"I like that there is no recruitment in the job. It's just about getting a group of players and trying to make them better.

"I think in professional rugby, when there is recruitment, there can be a little bit of, 'we'll just replace a guy with another guy.'

"I enjoy trying to improve the players and sharing some of my experiences because I'm so recently out of it, that I do know how hard it is to change habits.

"It's very easy to be at training to do something well because you're training defence in that moment. You're focused in on that.

"It's very hard then to bring that habit on to the pitch for an 80-minute match where there are a whole load of other things going on.

"It's about trying to give guys something simple that they can do when they're under pressure and when they're tired."

Demanding high standards from your fellow top-class professional players is one thing, but it is another to do it as a coach with the country's next crop, who are still developing.

During the U-20s' game in France last week, O'Connell was extremely vocal.

"It's been very enjoyable," O'Connell says. "It's a big learning curve for me, because I think when you're a player or even an ex-player, you can have an opinion about what someone or a team should be doing, but coming up with a strategy to implement that is a lot different.

"Your opinion is just a one-liner, the strategy has to be a very well thought out process. That's been a challenge.

"I think one of the things is, when you play with a province or you play for Ireland, you're together year on year, championship on championship.

"That isn't the way it is with the 20s. You get a group for the year and you hopefully teach them a few things but the next group you get then are coming in raw again.

"Some of the concepts that Noel is teaching them are brand new. For some of them, real coaching is a new concept.

"I suppose good players learn quickly, but I think the players that learn quickly are the guys that have got a lot of coaching in the past, so they are actually able to take the concept and put it into training straight away.

"Whereas guys that haven't had a lot of coaching, that's difficult for them. They're only learning how to do that.

"If I sit in the stand at a Munster match watching professional players, or at an Irish match, I find I get frustrated watching it anyway.

"You're obviously going to get frustrated then when you're watching as a coach. Learning to remain a little bit detached from the scoreline and what's going on is probably an important job for a coach.

"You want to give them something that in the white-hot heat of battle, when their heart-rate is high and they're under pressure - something easy to do. I suppose that's what all good coaches do."

Knowing that he will be flat out for just three months of the year with the U-20s is a comfort to O'Connell, who is mindful of spending as much time as possible at home with his young family.

That said, he still has his hands full, particularly with the work that he is doing as an ambassador for the Aldi rugby programme and the Community Games.

"You look at coaches, and certainly the young coaches I know or have known in the last few years, they're under an incredible amount of pressure constantly," he stresses.

"If you're in a very big job, it's a tough place to be learning. Some people can do it really well, others can't.

"For me, it's (U-20s) a great place to learn. There is no real money involved, you just have really enthusiastic guys who want to play for their country and do as well as they can."

O'Connell's task now is to help bring through the next James Ryan.

Ryan misses this afternoon's game against Italy through injury, and while O'Connell is aware of the comparisons being made between himself and the 21-year-old, he believes the Leinster man must mind his body.


It's something that O'Connell admits he did too late in his career and he doesn't want to see Ryan fall into the same trap.

"I think he's way further down the track at 21 than I was - physically, he's a bigger man," O'Connell adds.

"He's an excellent player. One of the big killers of rugby, I found, was playing when you're not at 100pc fit.

"He's had an awful lot of injuries for a young man. I think the biggest challenge for him is going to be remaining injury-free and doing the right training that keeps him injury-free.

"We would have done hour-long lineout training sessions in car parks on a Wednesday before big games, and it can't have been good for the knees or the lower back.

"So for him, as a young player, all you want to do is train and train the house down. But you'll find that a lot of the older players train smart and are able to mind their bodies a little bit.

"I'd love for him to have that mindset at a really young age so he can mind his body."

Spoken like a man who will be giving sound advice to Irish players for a long time to come.

Independent.ie's U-20s Six Nations coverage is in association with PwC

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