First things first. It’s neither “sad” nor “devastating” that Paul O’Connell has retired at 36. He’s had a remarkable rugby career on the pitch, and the second half is only getting started.
If there’s anything, it’s surprise that he finally met an opponent he couldn’t get the better off. That’s a first. Their respective careers are alike in no other way than playing together at Munster, but recognising the difference between his own and Felix Jones’ premature retirement said as much as anyone needs to know about Paulie.
Paul O’Connell doesn’t put himself on a global pedestal. He brings it all back home, as he always has done, keeping it grounded. His emotional compass was, is and always will be, centred in Munster.
From a sporting point of view, it’s great that he ended up just playing for Munster. The way the game is going, with players tempted to move by big chequebooks all the time, I find it really important that a player anchors himself in one place. I like that. That’s the old school in me. Murray, Zebo and Earls have all signed contract extensions now but I’d have been left seriously scratching my head if fellas like would leave Munster. There is something seriously wrong with the province if that day comes.
The disappointment Paul and his wife Emily might feel about not getting to experience the culture pot of Toulon will be short-lived. Emily was set on going there, and I think Paulie might still end up coaching in the south of France next year.
Toulon have a lot of persuading to do. But if they want a forwards coach, or a man who can offer so much on the training pitch or in the dressing room, it’s Paul O’Connell. He has run the Munster and Irish lineout for 15 years. He’s run 80% of team meetings for 15 years. So it’s a very simple progression. He’s not expected to command the position of a head coach if he is initially going to do lineout work. If he eventually goes down the forwards coach route, he’ll have some research to do on lines of running, the breakdown etc. But forward play, and leading - that’s his bread and butter. And this guy is different gravy. The language isn’t an issue there, because everyone in Toulon speaks English.
He’s been down there occasionally, keeping tabs on his new team-mates. Most of the time though, he’s been in the Santry Sports Clinic, rehabbing the hamstring injury. The notion that it would beat him was only a recent consideration.
Ultimately, it came down to the fact that trying to sidestep Father Time is a mug’s game. His problem, a case of the hamstring ripping off the bone, is re-habable but the prognosis is a lot better when you’re 26. When he was giving up to five hours a day rehab and still getting nowhere, maybe he really did have no alternative but to face reality. Up to very recently, he was still very much focused on returning to the field of play - and spending all his waking moment in Santry for that precise reason.
He is going to take time out and reflect now. He’s not short of options. He could be tempted to do something in the business world, perhaps with his good friend, JP McManus.
Going to Toulon in a coaching capacity would only really work from 2017, anyway. There’s only four or five months left in this campaign and he’d be doing himself no favours walking into a camp with 60-70% of the season done. There’s a different mentality in pre-season, and it’s the best opportunity to establish relationships with players, and laying down the principles you believe in.
A penny too for Joe Schmidt’s thoughts: There must have been a few moments in recent days again when he wondered what would be the best way of getting Paul back into Irish camp to provide invaluable back up.
Maybe Paul O’Connell might fancy the French national team as a job of work. People shrug around here and suggest sagely it might have to get worse before it gets better. How can they get any worse? After the World Cup? Is there an over-arching strategy, per chance? Beyond gagne les duelsand rester debout - win the duels, and stay upright (to offload).
French rugby needs greater accountability across the board at international level. The irony is that the domestic league, the Top 14, was never stronger, with a huge influx of talent from overseas enhancing the product. Will there come a day when the French Federation might look at an English-speaking coaching influence. It’s an issue that interests me in more ways than one...
At a micro level, I want to see gameplans that go beyond a couple of phases, a direction that signposts what they’re doing or what they want to achieve. Compare that to Ireland’s structure last weekend in things like the ruck, where the Schmidt detail was incredible.
I hope it doesn’t sound like a contradiction, but I wish I knew back when I was coming here to Paris as a player, what I know now about the French and their mentality. And here’s the contradiction - they are so bizarrely inconsistent I’m not sure I’d have figured them out anyway! There is the intriguing capability there when things click of being untouchable. Guy Noves has made six changes again for the Ireland game, but the wing selections underline what I am talking about. If you want excitement, two of the best try-scoring poachers I’ve seen, you’d select Teddy Thomas from Racing and Virimi Vakatawa, the Sevens star. If you want a pair of ‘give-me-one-ball-and-I’ll score’ merchants, France have picked them.
Vakatawa has already proved he has the capability, in attack, of doing things we have seldom seen from a rugby player. The boy is exceptionally talented. Of course, defensively and positionally he has a lot to learn and parachuting him straight in last week against Italy was questionable in a team situation. If you were a winger in France, what’s your motivation when a fella who hasn’t played the fifteen-man game for 28 months gets lobbed straight into the Six Nations starting XV? It’s a really challenging one for the coach to manage the group, but picking a fella cold to start is not going to do much for team morale.
Ireland turned in a serious performance last Sunday. The game against Wales was a stretch ahead of anything else on the opening weekend. The stone grating under the door is being 13-0 up at home and not sealing the deal. It turned on one tip tackle from Keith Earls, who was very impressive, particularly defensively. It was a harsh penalty call from Jerome Garces, Liam Williams landed on his elbow. It was a decisive moment.
Simon Zebo was hard and positive, but he missed one important tackle off a high ball that would have annoyed the boss. He offers a different dimension to Ireland. Earls and Zebo will be gutted to miss out tomorrow.
Every position in the backline offers a different set of challenges to the player. We have a class operator at Racing, Johan Goosen. The South African has another year on his contract with us, he’s been in negotiations and it’s probably stalled. But there’s not a hope in hell he is leaving Racing, for Munster or anywhere else. Sorry.
He is one of our best players now. Check out the try he scored against the Super 15 champion Highlanders in an exhibition match last Saturday in Hong Kong. He came as a ten but his position now is 15. He has such unbelievable speed and balance - not unlike Zebo - that he needs to be a few channels wider than at ten.
He could develop into a test ten but at this stage, has still to learn how to assimilate all the information around him to make a right decision. Whereas out wide it happens so naturally for him. He is quite the incredible athlete. He could be a decathlete for South Africa in the Olympics if he wanted.