Paul O’Connell gives new Irish management an emphatic thumbs-up
Sense of new beginning under Joe Schmidt apparent at two-day training camp
Paul O’Connell in action during Ireland’s training session at Carton House in Co Kildare yesterday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.
Renewal is Joe Schmidt; a change of backdrop, a more intensely nerdy approach and a different kind of bollocking for the troops. It makes a difference – the barking patterns of a new coach. His unfamiliar voice shaking with enthusiasm like a fresh breeze.
The slightly queered pitch hasn’t discomfited Paul O’Connell too crazily. But sitting large like the gatekeeper to greater rugby knowledge in Carton House alongside two green shoots, Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson, is a career remove away from Mick Galwey, his first second row partner in the 2002 Six Nations under Eddie O’Sullivan.
O’Connell caught the end of ‘Gaillimh’s’ old school method and after a sort of renaissance with O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney, Schmidt is very much new school, new rules, new thinking. Old hat perhaps, to the Munster lock.
But O’Connell’s thoughts are not about second guessing the Leinster old boy, who delivered his first harsh words to him when not so long ago his Munster boot collided with Dave Kearney’s head. Nor do they concern the ERC’s ongoing struggle with the disruptive forces in England and France over the Irish provinces’ beloved Heineken Cup. “You just hope the right people make the right decisions,” he says.
But O’Connell’s body has been and is, constantly in need of attention.
“I’d a bit of an interrupted pre-season, a few niggles but I’ve been back training pretty much flat out for the last few weeks so I’ll hopefully play pretty soon,” he says cautiously.
“I was delighted to get back last season, delighted to get on the tour. I was disappointed with the way it finished but . . it wasn’t the worst injury (broken arm) in the world to happen.
“I’m looking forward to getting back, getting a full season under my belt, getting levels of fitness I had on the Lions and try to maintain that a for a full season and push it on a bit . . .”
What O’Connell sniffs in the air and what Schmidt alluded to yesterday was the planting of hope in players’ heads. His training panel was deliberately large to show the periphery that it need not always be that way.
“One of the strengths Leinster has had over the years is the competition for places,” he says. “No one ever feels secure for a place up there. That’s the feedback you get from the guys. That seems to be something Joe is big into.
“We’ve had big numbers in here these last few days, two teams pretty much training against each other, a few guys swapping in and out. I think everyone genuine feels they’ve a great chance of playing in the Guinness Series. That is always a good thing for a team.”
John Plumtree’s Kiwi voice may have hints of South African inflection as he too casts a new shadow over the squad.
The forwards coach crossed paths with Schmidt during his time in New Zealand’s Wellington Lions but has spent the last six years with Natal Sharks. There’s no mistaking too that the two-day session bathed in sunshine over Sunday and yesterday abruptly marked the summer’s end and focused on the coming of autumn games against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand.
“There is always eagerness at the start of every season and every competition and John Plumtree is completely new,” says O’Connell. “There is pretty much a clean slate there and certain things that Joe is looking for in games. The guys are eager to deliver that over the next few weeks with the provinces. Joe has been fairly clear in what he requires from people and that kind of clarity is good.
“It seems to be very different on detail and having your work done before you go out on the pitch, knowing it and being able to react quickly on the pitch,” he explains. “So, yeah, it has been a very good few days. We have seen a lot of the stuff that the Leinster lads would have told us about, the way Joe goes about his business.”
The first challenge is just over six weeks away. “Any time you work with someone new, as successful as Joe Schmidt, it’s a good thing. It’s been really stimulating,” says O’Connell.
High praise indeed.