Paul O’Connell on Johnny Sexton: ‘The hunger is massively there’

Ireland forwards coach enjoying challenge of coaching a new breed of player

Looking ahead to Ireland's visit to Murrayfield this weekend, Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell said, "I think it’s the best Scottish team I’ve ever gone up against as a coach or a player." Video: VOTN

 

Guess who? “He can be cranky at times,” says Paul O’Connell. “But by and large I think he makes people feel good.”

Three Six Nations matches into his Irish coaching career and one player of his generation talking about another player of his generation. O’Connell and Johnny Sexton.

Sexton is seldom far from the lips of the Irish rugby conversation, his challenging spirit, the ambition, his centrality to the national team down to how he plays week to week, his performances a barometer of public confidence in the team. A player of influence and although the Irish outhalf is not directly within O’Connell’s coaching orbit, the disposition of the team captain is always of concern.

On his decisions the Irish lineout and scrum may be asked to perform and that’s on O’Connell’s watch. On those issues and the eternal question of whither Sexton physically, mentally or otherwise, O’Connell has considerable interest if little concern.

“Yeah, I think he’s in a good place. He’s been unlucky with injuries in recent times and that’s a challenge as you get older,” says O’Connell. “But the hunger is there. The hunger is massively there.

“I enjoy talking to him about training and preparation and how he’s trying to figure ways to look after his body. He’s incredibly diligent in that regard. The intensity that he brings to training, that he brings to meetings, that he brings to any conversation. I think it’s inspiring for players to see how much it still means to him. How much responsibility he’s willing to take.”

There is an element of O’Connell still feeling his way and although only five years after a serious hamstring injury ended his career just before he was due to depart for a career twilight in French sunshine, there have been changes.

Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton during Ireland’s 2015 Rugby World Cup game against Italy at the Olympic Stadium in London. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton during Ireland’s 2015 Rugby World Cup game against Italy at the Olympic Stadium in London. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

New facilities at Abbotstown bringing Ireland into line with the best in the world and also new breeds of athlete, fresh ideas about how the game is played and what demands are being made on the position. Since his time as a secondrow, new specimens are arriving doing new things, performing different tasks.

“I think that’s the biggest thing from my time playing with him [Sexton] and since I’ve been in here is the amount of responsibility he’s willing to take,” adds O’Connell.

“I think teams that do that and have players that can do that, whether they’re defensive captains, whether they’re lineout callers, breakdown specialists, guys like Johnny who obviously plays outhalf and probably touches the ball the second-most times after the nine, guys that are willing to take responsibility for the performance of the team are invaluable and it’s a big lesson for other players to watch him in action.”

It also applies to his squadron of forwards, especially the locks, who are also tapering into being auxiliary flankers and required to contribute more widely. Tadhg Beirne, who has moved from secondrow to blindside, was happy to poach ball with Scarlets and crank up his turnover count. He is still that.

“He has been a brilliant signing for Munster. I have enjoyed watching him and I have enjoyed his development since he has come to Munster because they have obviously asked him to change,” says O’Connell.

Munster and Ireland expect more. He has tweaked his game to stay in the defensive line more often which means his timing to move in and open a seam in a ruck for a poach needs finer timing. James Ryan and Ryan Baird are the younger, more extreme versions of what is coming down the line in the carry, tackle, running, line breaks and well, everything.

“Secondrows are almost becoming [part of] a back five now. You look at some of our secondrows, their ball-carrying ability, their tackle ability, the speed that some of them can move at,” says O’Connell. “They are almost like tall number sixes.

“The place for a workhorse secondrow that hits rucks all day, I don’t know how long more there is in the game for him because everyone now is expected to be able to carry, everyone is expected to be able to operate in the wide channels a few times in a game, everyone is expected to defensively work five or six guys out from the ruck. You look at the latest guy to come in, Ryan Baird, I suppose that’s the way secondrows are going.”

He says he’s enjoying it. He says it is a lot of small conversations where problems in the team are solved, where clarity is better understood. The ‘old days’ was in front of a TV presenting to the group . Hands on coaching, what are they thinking, what are they feeling. It’s the biggest change he says whether it’s the vocal Irish pivot or a surly Irish prop.

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