Coaching looks a natural progression for Paul O'Connell

Paul O’Connell may be in two minds about the prospect of a career in coaching, but there are no doubts among his former team-mates as to whether the former Munster and Ireland captain has what it takes to succeed on the far side of the tramlines. 

The man himself put it succinctly yesterday morning when discussing his possible future paths, of which coaching is just the one: Sometimes it seems like a road he would dearly love, at others it is one he would want to avoid above all others.

He is hardly alone in having thought that.

Life spent in a bib and with a whistle brings no guarantees and a man with a young family must think long and hard before committing to it. And heaven knows there aren’t a plethora of such jobs on these shores, even if he seems tailor-made for some manner of role with Munster down the line.

“I hear Young Munsters U8s are looking for someone if he wants to start out somewhere easy,” joked Donnacha Ryan when quizzed for his thoughts and, who knows, it would be no surprise given O’Connell’s love for the club.

The man himself hinted at a step in that sort of direction when explaining to RTÉ Radio yesterday how the next few years will serve as something approaching an apprenticeship and he will be aware how some ex-players have climbed the coaching ladder too high too soon.

Martin Johnson, the man whose mantle as the best lock in the northern hemisphere he once assumed, is the prime example of that given his ultimate ejection from the role of England head coach but O’Connell clearly possesses many of the attributes required.

Conor Murray explained yesterday how his former colleague didn’t just know his own role inside out, he knew everyone else’s too. That encyclopedic knowledge meant O’Connell spotted every mistake and it drove his teammates on, demanding they reach his own rarified standards. Not a bad start.

“I think it is something he almost did as a player,” said Murray in Ireland camp yesterday. “He was almost coaching people as a player. He fully understood back moves as well as forward play.

“So, he would be a massive asset to whoever he goes to. It will take him a while to decide what he wants to do and what route he wants to go down: Whether he wants to go somewhere for experience or go into the deep end or whatever. I’m sure whatever he wants he will get. That drive and will to win won’t stop just because he isn’t playing anymore. He will dive into something and give it his full commitment.”

O’Connell clearly has options. He spoke yesterday of business interests, an autobiography, his desire to spend more time on the golf course, initiatives around Limerick and, of course, plans with his young family. Yet rugby will be slow to loosen its grip.

“You can’t be part of something for so long and not have a look at it,” he told RTÉ, “but at the same time the real world interests me. I am in contact now and again with Gordon D’Arcy who is working with Investec and he seems to be really enjoying it and had a real idea of what he wanted to do.”

The Munster link will never break. Ronan O’Gara knows what it is to be forever linked with a coaching role back at his native province despite, or maybe because of, the fact he is making his mark with Racing Metro and O’Connell will join him now as an adored son and saviour to be pined over if and when things are bad.

“I have a great affinity with Munster and with the coaches that are there: Anthony Foley, Brian Walsh, Ian Costello, and Jerry Flannery,” said O’Connell. “It is has been a tough time for them, but I suppose they are getting their Masters degree in coaching now. It is an incredible experience they are going through. It is tough times but I would say it is making them far better coaches.”

Some qualities are innate, though. Ryan, like Murray, singled out his wealth of knowledge and both spoke of O’Connell’s abilities as a communicator as well. Positivity was mentioned, too, and an ability to instil in players a desire to follow his lead-from-the-front example. He would clearly lack for nothing in respect. Many coaches have prospered despite the absence of high-profile playing careers while others have been weighted in failure despite careers of note, but O’Connell would command instant respect.

Just one anecdote from Murray sums up why.

“It was the Heineken Cup a few years ago. We played Racing away and I had a bit of a nightmare. We were playing Edinburgh the following week and in my head I wanted to play as well as I could and get man of the match and try and put the wrongs right. Within the first 20 minutes of the Edinburgh game he had three or four turnovers, some big carries and a few hits and I was thinking to myself that I just couldn’t outplay that guy on that day. He was like that for years.”

All we can do now is wait.

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