Paul O'Connell is wary of any team coached by former Scottish playmaker Gregor Townsend. The Irish lock, now coaching the Irish forwards, believes the Scotland team Ireland meet at the weekend in Edinburgh for round four of the Six Nations Championship is the best he has come up against since stepping into the coaching job at the end of last year or when playing with Munster .
"I think it's the best Scottish team I've ever gone up against as a coach or a player," said O'Connell, who retired just five years ago through injury. "They're very well coached, very physical and they've got some real X-factor players as well – Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell. They're in a very good place and we're aware of the challenge."
O’Connell’s experience of Townsend comes not just from his position with Scotland but also as a club coach with Glasgow. The Glasgow teams O’Connell faced with Munster have always been attack minded and played with the flair and invention Townsend once did as a creative outhalf, centre and fullback.
With spells in France with Brive, Castres and Montpellier, Townsend the player, has never been far from a ball-running, passing game. But his teams have also had considerable bite.
“There’s no doubt Scotland are an excellent side,” said O’Connell. “Any team coached by Gregor Townsend always attack very well. Going back to his Glasgow days they always had incredible physical edge.
“You think sometimes if a coach is into attack then his team won’t have a physical edge, but every Glasgow team I played back in the day were excellent attacking sides, but were physical as well. It’s the same with this Scottish team.
"So much good attack in the Autumn Nations Cup and the Six Nations has come from Scotland. Fantastic performance against England, excellent set-piece performance, which laid a real solid foundation for them to go on and win."
With England the following weekend in the final match of the championship, Ireland’s finish is tougher than initially expected as the team have struggled to play with a high-level consistency. Last time out against a weak Italian side, Ireland at least drew confidence from turning over the scoreboard and scoring six tries, exactly what was expected.
But Scotland have visibly improved and their confidence is now ballooning after the win over England in the Calcutta Cup, their first in Twickenham since 1983. Conversely, Ireland have generally been as O’Connell specifically sees the Irish lineout: “ I think some parts of it have been good, some parts of it have been poor,” he said.
“It’s a massive test, these next two weeks against a resurgent, confident Scottish side and an England side we’ve struggled against in recent years. It’s a real tough challenge now in the next few weeks.”
But there is no head hanging and O’Connell has been impressed with the at-hand facilities in the National Performance Centre at Abbotstown, where Ireland have access to indoor facilities, gyms and pitches adjacent to each other and even sideline televisions for real time learning.
“We’ve taken confidence, from some of the things we’ve done in the last three games,” he says. “We’ve probably been unlucky in some regards and we haven’t helped ourselves in some regards, probably given sides a leg up when we played them (early red card versus Wales).
“That’s something we can’t do in the next few weeks. You have to be hard to beat, you can’t give things away to teams and we’ve probably done that a little bit.”