Paul O'Connell: The Lions, coaching and a multi-million euro interactive rugby experience in Limerick

Paul O’Connell discusses his coaching journey, the Lions, and a multi-million euro interactive world rugby experience in the heart of Limerick city. He spoke to Christy O’Connor
Paul O'Connell: The Lions, coaching and a multi-million euro interactive rugby experience in Limerick

Chair of the International Rugby Experience, Paul O'Connellpictured at the site of the International Rugby Experience on O'Connell St., Limerick City. The 30,000 sq. ft visitor attraction is now firmly on schedule to open its doors in Autumn 2022 for a global celebration of the game of rugby union. At a cost of €30 million, the project is funded by the JP McManus Charitable Entities, and it is envisaged the centre will attract 100,000 visitors per annum. Picture: Alan Place

When Paul O’Connell joined Stade Francais as forwards coach in 2018, he and his family chose to live in Suresnes in the western suburbs of Paris. It was close to the Stade training ground. It was near the La Défense train station. It was just a coincidence that Suresnes was also the place where Anthony Foley passed away.

O’Connell often thought of Foley when he lived in Suresnes, but his former team-mate has never been far from O’Connell’s thoughts since his death five years ago. “If you are a Munster man, he crosses your mind all the time,” says O’Connell. “I often think about where Axel would he be in his coaching journey now, if he was still alive.

“He had a few tough times, but he would have learned. He was a very smart guy. He would have really improved. I always wonder how far down the track he would be at this stage? Anthony would be so experienced now.”

BACK IN THE GAME

Before he became Munster head coach, Foley had been absorbed into the backroom team after his playing career ended. He worked with the U20s and the A team, becoming a technical advisor to the senior team, before overseeing the defence and then taking over from Laurie Fisher as the team’s forwards coach.

O’Connell now occupies that position with Ireland, but his coaching journey and pathway was nowhere near as defined or mapped out. He had a brief involvement as assistant coach to the Ireland U20s in 2018. O’Connell departed after one year into a three-year contract as forwards coach to Stade. After leaving the French club in 2019, O’Connell said he had no long-term plans to go into coaching. He was linked with a move to Toulon, but O’Connell ruled that out. Last October, O’Connell reaffirmed that he wasn’t looking to pursue any new coaching roles.

Then Andy Farrell called.

O’Connell had first worked with Farrell on the Lions tour in 2013. He was intrigued by the offer, but O’Connell also remembered what Alan Gaffney said to him when he first came to Munster — that he didn’t want to die wondering.

“If Andy hadn’t picked up the phone to me I probably would have moved on happily but when he did call, I felt it was something that I would have regretted refusing,” he says. “I felt it was a coaching staff I could really add to and enjoy working with. The role that Andy proposed was something I felt I was competent at, and that I could get better at very quickly.”

It also suited his family situation for his wife Emily and three young kids, Paddy, Lola, and Felix. Being able to live in Limerick and spend more time at home was a game-breaker. “The coaching thing is interesting,” he says. “Someone said to me that Andy Friend has lived in 19 different houses. That’s an incredible level of commitment.

“This was an opportunity for me to work with the Irish team, and to be able to live at home and not move the kids again. I certainly have an interest in coaching but, like a lot of people, I understand that it’s a tough life, and a tough life on your family more than you.”

It was only logical to assume that O’Connell would bring the same ferocious intent and attention to detail as a coach that he brought as a player, with heart and soul and a whole lot more thrown in too. He has immersed himself in his role with Ireland, but the next level is the only level O’Connell ever cared about. More is never enough. “I feel I need to make a bigger impact with them,” he says. “You really have an eager and very enthusiastic group and it’s my job to bring them on and improve them.”

O’Connell’s captaincy was process-driven and example-led. He always understood and appreciated the blood and thunder stuff that had characterised Munster’s early years in Europe, but O’Connell and his peers also knew that the temperature of the Munster dressing room had to change if they were to be successful in Europe.

Ireland followed a similar journey, where the process — and its forensic attention to detail — became an important part of the culture shift. Everything else flowed from that, but the detail still defined it.

In the past, the coaching staff would have thrown sweat at the problem, by making the players work harder and longer. The players would have felt that was the best solution too, but that culture has radically changed. The modern player craves more information, more knowledge, more technical detail. And coaches have to provide it.

“Emotion and passion still play a massive part in the game,” says O’Connell. “I think that’s one of the reasons Irish teams were so successful. We were playing for the clubs we grew up wanting to play for. We had a bit of a GAA mentality. You go to some of the bigger clubs elsewhere in Europe and not a lot of those players grew up wanting to play for those clubs.

“I still think we have that real advantage, but you also have to have brilliant coaching, and excellent strategy behind all of that. You have to have real foundations in how you play the game. As a coach you find out that if you do get something wrong, it’s not because the players have a bad attitude — it’s because you’ve got it wrong as a coach. So you really have to hold your hand up.”

The minutia of the coaching detail fascinates O’Connell. “A lot of things that looked like someone did on sheer natural ability in the past, people have figured out how to coach it now,” says O’Connell. “I always remember Brian O’Driscoll’s ability to read a defensive line and come out of the line and stop a play in an instant. He just had a brilliant reading of the game, but a lot of very good coaches can coach that now. The coaching has gone to another level and that’s what I find really interesting.”

O’Connell’s impact on Ireland was obvious in the Six Nations, especially against Scotland, who won only 25% of their lineouts. Ireland’s success at the breakdown the same afternoon underlined how O’Connell’s impact extended beyond the lineout.

“You always want to feel you’re making an impact,” he says. “I feel there are a few shortcuts that I learned along the way towards the end of my playing time that I feel players can gain from some of those insights and experiences. Since I’ve finished playing, I feel I’ve even formulated some of those even a little better.

“I like working with the players in Ireland. The IRFU don’t get everything right but they’re trying to, and there is a lot of good long-term decision making happening. Because of that, the players tend to be quite happy here. They are incredibly hard-working and motivated. They just want to get better. That kind of player is a great player to work with.”

Hios coaching time was short in France but it was a huge learning experience for O’Connell. He loved the club. The family loved the experience. Several high-profile French players raved about O’Connell’s impact but there was a difference of opinion between O’Connell and head coach, Heyneke Meyer.

“I get on great with Heyneke, he’s a fantastic guy, but I just had an appetite to do things differently,” says O’Connell. “It was maybe a different way of looking at things. I had moved the family over there and it was a question of do we want to stay and do this. Ultimately, we decided against it. But there are some days when I think I should have dug in.”

The culture was different. The language was a challenge, but O’Connell learned that coaching language is more than just about dialect. “I think you got to figure out what you want to stand for, and how you want to do things,” he says. “Then you gotta put the language around that, and how you’re going to coach it. I would have known a lot of things in Stade, but you have to put the language around it as well. You can’t just have it in your head.”

O’Connell couldn’t just transplant his way of thinking into the players’ thought process. He could plant the seed, but it had to organically grow and develop. And building human relationships are at the core of that process.

O’Connell was talking to Jerry Flannery recently. Flannery has built an impressive coaching CV. His work as Harlequins lineout and defence coach was obvious in ‘Quins run to the Premiership title last month. They spoke in depth about coaching, but Flannery said that human relationships, and continually developing them, was every bit as important as coaching philosophy and detail.

O’Connell always knew that value from the Munster dressing room, where the friendly fire could be mercilessly powerful in strengthening the dynamic and spirit of the group. Ireland’s success was also largely built around that framework of human connection.

“It’s called connecting now but we would have just called it having the craic,” says O’Connell. “Great teams always had that naturally. We really had that with Munster and Ireland. We were training the house down and pushing the boundaries the whole time. We were always competing, but we were still having unbelievable fun. That’s what people miss the most. The relationships and the trust and that was built on the back of that led to us punching above our weight sometimes.”

It was always harder to create that natural dynamic on Lions Tours, but O’Connell only really appreciates now the skill that went into growing that culture and developing that environment in such a short time.

On the 2009 Tour to South Africa, the Lions brought a gym on the back of a truck which they would set up pitch-side wherever they trained around the country. It required huge logistical preparation and manpower, but Warren Gatland wanted every player on the bus together.

When the backs were doing specialised training, the forwards would do their weights session beside the pitch. Then both groups would switch. They’d all have a snack together during a break in the session. Video work was done by wheeling out a big box with a TV on top. After training, they’d all eat lunch together before going back to the hotel. During the evenings, everyone was encouraged to spend more time together.

“They really gave huge thought to how can we help these guys spend time together, build relationships and become friends,” says O’Connell. “We were like an old-school Lions tour. I always remember Adam Jones telling me once that he had been off drink for a year to try and get picked for the Lions, but, since he’d been on the tour, he hadn’t stopped drinking.

“Back then when I would have felt it was all about being better at rugby, I would have never given that human connection the same level of thought. A lot of that was down to Ian McGeechan. I would have learned a lot in those tours.”

As he develops his coaching style along his new journey, O’Connell is trying to impart those lessons in the best way he can, especially in a modern world were connectivity has a whole new meaning.

“There is a point of diminishing returns with professionalism,” he says. “As a team, you need to have the glue which holds you together and the glue is the relationships and the respect and love for each other. In pursuit of professionalism, we sometimes overlook that.

“I think it’s gone the other way now in that teams are working really hard at that part of the game. They’ve realised that guys have phones with them on the bus, that very few players drink these days. They have to create opportunities for guys to build relationships and connect.”

For the current Lions Tour, Gatland has brought Paddy ‘Rala’ O’Reilly, the renowned bagman with Ireland for over two decades, out of retirement. O’Connell wasn’t surprised.

THE LIONS EXPERIENCE

In June, Ian McGeechan wrote in his newspaper column that Gatland should include O’Connell on the Lions coaching team mid-tour, after Ireland’s two games against Japan and the USA in July.

Gatland had spoken to O’Connell a couple of times, but he had also checked in with every forwards coach involved with the four nations. O’Connell wasn’t asked to get involved but, even if he was, he didn’t feel the time was right.

“I wouldn’t have felt confident,” he says. “I had only done a handful of games with the Irish team. I wanted to spend as much time as I can with them because I’m still learning about them and learning about myself. I think you need a bit more experience to go on a Lions tour because you have different personalities to manage. It’s something I’d love to do down the track, but I don’t think I’d have been ready at this stage.”

McGeechan spoke about the value of O’Connell’s expertise and insights from having played on three Lions tours. But a coaching role at that level requires something more than just playing experience.

On the 2005 and 2009 tours, O’Connell felt that the coaching staff “were trying to please everyone with the lineout calls”. Then in 2013, Graham Rowntree just outlined the calls they were using — end of, crack on.

“I remember thinking they were quite complicated,” says O’Connell now. “They were effectively the England lineout calls, so we had a whole host of guys that were able to coach it on the field. So instead of us all trying to come up with this system and not really knowing how it worked, at least we had a system that a whole group of guys knew. Then it was up to the rest of us to play catch-up.

“I don’t know if I’d have had the confidence to do that, to rock in there and say, ‘I’ll take a few opinions on board, but this is what we are doing’. I think you need experience to do that. I think I’d love to do it when I’ve a few more experiences under my belt, when I’ve seen a few good and bad days, when I’ve learned to problem-solve better.” Any perceived lack of confidence has nothing to do with his own set of beliefs; it’s just the bottom line of coaching-experience and accumulating enough of it to make himself better at it.

“It’s not down to my knowledge of lineouts,” says O’Connell. “It’s about good days and bad days, having to solve a problem at half-time or in a seven-day turnaround. The more of those days you’ve seen and felt, the better you are, and the better you’re able to problem-solve in the moment.”

The current Lions Tour has brought back a lot of memories. O’Connell captained the last Lions side to tour South Africa in 2009. They lost the series 2-1 but he doesn’t look back on it all now in simple black and white terms.

“It was a tough tour because I was captain and I was getting a good bit of criticism,” says O’Connell. “I think I misjudged the captaincy back then a little. You look at Martin Johnson and Willie John McBride and successful teams and you think that it’s all down to the captain and nothing else. That’s the narrative I had in my head but that’s not true at all. It was tough, but I enjoyed it. And when I look back now, I realise I enjoyed it more than I thought at the time.

“I would have been obsessed with winning. The big regret in 2009 is that we didn’t win. But when I’m asked about that tour now, it’s mostly the positive experiences I talk about. I think the supporters on that tour identified with the rugby we played and with the fun we were having.

“I do realise now that it’s not all about winning. After the 2005 Tour, they were talking about scrapping the Lions, that it no longer had any place, that we couldn’t be competitive any more. We changed that in South Africa in 2009. I am proud of that.” Twelve years on, the current Lions side have a chance to do tomorrow what the Lions didn’t do in 2009, by winning the Series.

“I think the Lions should be very proud of that performance last week,” says O’Connell. “It was a big victory because South Africa really have to go to the well this weekend. And even if South Africa beat the Lions by having to go to the well, they’ll have to go to the well against next weekend. The Lions are in a great position now.”

BRINGING VISITORS TO RUGBY COUNTRY

Sitting in the second floor of the Savoy Hotel in Limerick city centre, O’Connell looks as lean and fit as ever. Not as big and strong as when he was a player but still chiselled and imposing, still working out.

Coaching is his main focus now, but O’Connell’s influence still extends right across rugby’s spectrum, especially in Limerick. He is a director of the not-for-profit company behind the construction of a €30m interactive world rugby experience in the heart of Limerick city, which plans to open in the autumn of 2022.

The main focus of the project is to boost the city centre economy as well as supporting tourism in the surrounding region. Financed by a charitable entities group owned by JP McManus, the 30,000 sq ft project has already created 100 construction jobs, and will create a further 50 staff posts when it opens.

The development aims to attract 100,000 visitors per annum. “It’s not a building full of artifacts, it’s a digitally interactive experience,” says O’Connell. “It’s to bring new eyes to rugby, but it’s also to bring new eyes to Limerick city. It will be a world class visitor destination.”

Rugby will always define O’Connell, but the game has its place now in the bigger picture of his life. The culture of brutal self-examination and self-improvement that shaped O’Connell as a player has been transferred into his coaching world.

It is a whole new experience, but he also has the value of hindsight and perspective that he didn’t always have, or appreciate, as a player.

O’Connell still carries that huge aura and mystique. More layers have been peeled off since he retired, but Mario Rosenstock is still knocking as much craic out of his voice-caricature of O’Connell on Today FM’s Gift Grub as he did when O’Connell was tearing it up as a player.

“People would have said in the past that I could have revealed more of myself, but I always felt I gave as much of myself as I could,” he says. “Declan (Kidney) would have encouraged that in all of us from a young age so I always felt I was an open book to people. I demanded so much off people that I’d be getting into arguments with them. But because of the trust that honesty developed, I felt the relationship was always stronger as a result. I was definitely very competitive, but I loved the craic as much as anyone. That’s what maybe people didn’t see about me. I absolutely loved the fun of it all.” O’Connell occupies a different place in the rugby world now, but he’s still powered by the same fuel, the same motivation to excel, the same passion for human connection. Honesty. Trust. Development. Fun. Character. Constant improvement.

Still O’Connell to the core.

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