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'It's a constant discussion with Andy': The one thing rookie Test coach Paul O'Connell has found really challenging with Ireland

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Getty Images)

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Legendary Ireland and Lions skipper Paul O’Connell has singled out the one thing he has found most challenging as an assistant coach with his country in the 2021 Guinness Six Nations. O’Connell was recently brought on board the Ireland management ticket by Andy Farrell in a consolidated bid to help secure better results.  


It has been tough going, the Irish losing their opening two matches in the championship for the first time since 1998, and the win last time out over minnows Italy hasn’t diluted the debate as to whether Farrell has the tools to become a successful head coach at Test level after succeeding Joe Schmidt. 

Five of Farrell’s twelve matches in charge have been lost since he took charge in 2020 and the ex-England assistant has his hands full trying to improve that record in the coming weeks, starting against Scotland on Sunday in Edinburgh six days before they host Eddie Jones’ English in Dublin on March 20.

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O’Connell linked up with Ireland in January and seven weeks into his new job, he has highlighted the biggest difficulty he has found working as forwards coach. “We have very little time,” he revealed. “You’d love to have more time with the players, even in the working week.

“It’s a constant discussion with Andy around how much time you are going to get with the players but that time restriction is probably what makes you keep things simple. It makes you stick to what is relevant rather than trying to cover off everything because you don’t know what a team is going to do from week to week either. You just have to be able to prepare for the unexpected. 

“So that is probably the biggest challenge, just trying to get time with the players, trying to prepare for I suppose the critical few moments in the game rather than trying to cover everything. Some times you have to go into a game knowing you haven’t everything covered off and knowing that the players are clever enough to solve problems on the go – but I must say I find that really challenging. It’s a challenge for every young coach, they want to cover everything and Andy is good at putting the reins on that.          


“You are trying to simplify things all the time and you are trying to see things very quickly and very often the only way you can see things quickly and call it quickly is experience. It’s seeing it time and time again. If the only way you can get the experience is by doing it, it can take a long time. 

“You tend to do a lot of walkthroughs, you tend to watch a lot of footage and try and ask questions. That is how they enjoy learning. The players enjoy talking things through, being challenged, challenging each other and that is a bit of a challenge for me at times. You want to jump in with the answer yourself a lot. 

“Even I was watching John Fogarty today [Tuesday], when the scrums were finished he just sat back and let the players talk for about 60 seconds before he said anything himself. They know how to solve the problems themselves very often and if they don’t, the guy beside them probably does. It’s about them trying to learn how to do that themselves and then you can offer an opinion after with the benefit of a video.”

It was 2015 when O’Connell played his last Test match, a serious injury in a World Cup pool win over France precipitating the end of his club career where he was set to join Toulon from Munster. Coming back into the fold with Ireland six years later, two differences have most stood out.  


“The biggest change here which happened naturally was the move to the high performance centre in Abbotstown. It just gives you different opportunities to prepare in different ways. We have a gym that goes into an indoor pitch, we have TVs pitchside so we can do a lot of work, we can walk through a lot of things, we can come out of the gym and go to an indoor surface and we can walk through some things and it saves a lot of the work that is done on the field. 

“It gives you a lot more opportunity for clarity. I’d say the biggest change in the five years since I’ve retired is the amount of player involvement and player coaching that goes on. Players are incredibly diligent around the work they do, they take real responsibility in delivering the game plan to the wider playing group based on what your role is within the team.

“So they are the two big things, the HPC has seen a massive change in how we are able to go about our business and the players are very diligent in almost coaching the side themselves as well. Those are the two big changes.”


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