Paul O’Connell insists Ireland can improve performance without drastic measures

Forwards coach highlights decent work at breakdown but wants to see inaccuracies eliminated

Co-opting Paul O’Connell onto the Irish coaching ticket was a masterstroke by Andy Farrell. His impact on the team’s forward play and breakdown work has been profound but while the scale of last Saturday’s First Test defeat was a jolt, no less than Farrell, the former Irish captain is prepared to embrace this squad’s mission of discovery in New Zealand.

“The boys are definitely down because it was a tough game, a physical game, but I think there’s a lot of belief in the group. So to have lost by the scoreline we did is very disappointing but at the same time it’s where we want to be as a group,” reasoned O’Connell from the squad’s base in Auckland after last Saturday’s 42-19 loss left them 1-0 down in the three-Test series.

“I think in the last 18 months we’ve made excellent improvements but there certainly is another level that we need to go to. I think we only really, really find out where that level is when you play teams like we played last Saturday. So there’ll be massive learnings from our review of the game and there will be big learnings in terms of what we do in the next two weeks.

“There won’t be a massive amount of training required to fix what we’re doing or there won’t be a lot of habits to be changed. There are a few things that we need to be a little bit smarter on and that’s something that we generally pride ourselves on in how we go about our business and how we got about our game in not giving teams a leg up into the game.

“We certainly need to address that and if we can address that we’ve a good chance next Saturday.”

In digesting some painful lessons, O’Connell also saw encouragement from that first Test defeat.

“I think we produced a lot when we attacked. I think some of the access we gave them into the game can be tidied up. And I do think you have to accept that they are going to score tries at times. You just have to try to minimise those opportunities through your defence and not turning over the ball or not giving away some of the penalties that are easier to not give away than others.”

Beginning with that 18-phase opening try, and repeated for their other two tries, Ireland’s ruck play was mostly very efficient but like any of their other inaccuracies, they were ruthlessly punished when that wasn’t the case.

A prime example was the Quinn Tupaea try from Beaduen Barrett’s delicious grubber off a turnover after Jamison Gibson-Park sniped off a defensive line-out. Overall, the All Blacks went after Ireland’s ruck ball in a way not many sides have done, giving O’Connell plenty to ponder, and also in how New Zealand tinkered with their attack to telling effect.

“In their pod of three forwards, they were hitting the outside forward quite a lot. One time that third guy in the pod of the three was a guy called Ardie Savea, who is a pretty good player and was able to create a little bit of magic on the end of it.

“That’s probably the big change they have made. They went hard at our ruck as well at times, and very hard at their own ruck.

“It’s such a big part of the game now. I think we had 130 rucks, they had 90-odd rucks. It plays such a big role in the game now.

O’Connell wasn’t of a mind to question the breakdown interpretations of referee Karl Dickson.

“There are a few bits that we would look to chat to the referees about from the weekend – but not a lot. I think a lot of it is down to our own work and how we go about our business.

“We had 126 rucks, the vast majority of them were really good. Unfortunately we got really badly hurt off a few of the turnovers; one in particular off the five man line out where Jamison had a crack. That was really unfortunate and it shines a light on some of your bad ones.

“We have to look at ourselves first and foremost in terms of the support we have off the breakdown when we do go to ground and to solve that. There might be one or two things to address with the ref but the majority of it lies with ourselves and how we go about our business.”

Another curious feature of last Saturday’s First Test was how often Irish players lost their footing - with costly outcomes too. It led to the double whammy of Johnny Sexton’s injury and Sevu Reece’s breakaway try, when James Lowe slipped as Garry Ringrose passed to him, as well as contributing to Ardie Savea’s first try when Lowe and Peter O’Mahony slipped in the in-goal area.

“We were aware of it from the captain’s run and Conor Murray was jogging and he slipped on the flat of his back in the captain’s run. He thought no one saw it and a few people slipped and Andy had flagged it. The boys had discussed boots and a few of the boys had changed studs the night before. I think a lot of them had.

“So we were aware of it and it still happened a little bit which was unfortunate. I don’t know did we slip more than them - I’m not too sure. I’ll have to look a little bit closer than that but for sure it’s a slippy surface. It’s a very lush surface and it was very slippy, and it was unfortunate for Lowey (James Lowe) that it happened just as Ringer (Ringrose) was passing he hit the deck.

“Unfortunately those are the opportunities that New Zealand, when they get them, they generally score off them.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times