Paul O’Connell’s experience still vital ahead of Twickenham test

Forwards coach imparting wisdom from his own decent record at home of English rugby

Andrew Trimble once revealed that he always loved listening to Paul O'Connell during the week of an Ireland-England game, how O'Connell invariably had something special to say and it always had the desired effect.

“He never lets you down during an England week,” said Trimble. “He’s massively motivated and that inspiration filtered through. Everybody was unbelievably up for it.”

It's doubtful that O'Connell, in his guise as Ireland's forwards coach, reinvokes the "manic aggression" he called for before Ireland hosted England at Croke Park in 2007 with a performance which Andy Farrell subsequently described as "certainly a highlight in my career, even though I was on the wrong side of it".

One imagines O’Connell is more cerebral and more tactical nowadays. But in a dozen Test starts against England, he was on the winning side eight times, including a respectable three wins and three defeats at Twickenham.

“It is a very tough place to go to,” O’Connell said yesterday. “It’s a massive stadium. In fairness, there is a great atmosphere there and they do react well to the team playing well.

“My experiences there were good and bad. We took some bad beatings there but we had some great days there as well. It’s probably no different to Paris for us. It’s something that some guys have to acknowledge, that they haven’t a lot of experience of these away games in hostile environments where the opposition might get on top of you for a little while.

“Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that that is going to happen and use your smarts to ride it out, and then figure it out to try and get back on top. I have no doubt in my mind that there will be a period in the game like that in Twickenham. It will be exciting and interesting to see how our players react.”

This will be O'Connell's first trek to Twickenham as part of Ireland's coaching ticket, although he was invited into the Irish camp in the week of the 2020 Six Nations clash, which England won pulling up by 24-12; the second of three successive Irish defeats there.

“We’ve had some tough experiences in Twickenham in recent times and that’s because England are such a good side. They are so physical and so well-coached. They play a really shrewd tactical kicking game where they can kick long but their short kicking is really good as well. They just keep putting you under pressure and try to keep you in your own half.

“You need to be able to manage that. Hopefully, we’ll be in a better situation than we were two years ago to manage it,” he added, noting the experiences accumulated since under Farrell in how the team is trying to play.

Big performance

“Sometimes we have been really good at that, sometimes we have been really poor at that. And when we’ve been poor, we’ve given teams access into games and we have struggled. It’s the same challenge again now at Twickenham. Can we be calm and accurate under the pressure of a really good side who can be very physical with you, but can also be really clever in how they try and make you play?”

O’Connell also fears England are primed for a big performance, not least given Alex Dombrant’s promotion to the team. As a consequence of chats with Jerry Flannery, O’Connell has watched Harlequins and said of their number ‘8’: “He’s one of the most skilful forwards I’ve ever seen playing in terms of his ability to run lines, in terms of his ability to handle the ball under pressure”.

O’Connell believes Dombrandt has revived England’s powerful forward carrying game which in turn has provided a stronger base for that kicking game, thus forcing teams to tackle plenty of big carriers in their own half.

“I think when England are good that’s what they do really well and when they’ve been good against us in the last few years that’s what they’ve done really well.

“We’ve seen more and more of that, and we looked at the Welsh game and some clips where they kicked well and they kicked well after kicking well. So that’s a challenge for us to manage.”

O’Connell confirmed that another loosehead will be called into the squad after Andrew Porter’s ankle injury ruled him out of the England and Scotland games. Porter is aiming to return for Leinster’s European last 16 first leg against Connacht in four weeks’ time.

This follows the loss of Ronan Kelleher for the remainder of the championship due to the shoulder injury he sustained in Paris. However, as with Dan Sheehan assuming that role, O'Connell cited the team's ability to overcome previous late withdrawals and the combined experience of Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne, who have 160 caps between them, in again making the disruption seamless.

O’Connell is also clearly enjoying working with the new breed of Irish forwards.

“Ronan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan are a pleasure to work with, very good at feeding back information, very good at feeding back what they felt or what they saw because ultimately, as coaches, and I would have had these experiences as a player in a lineout, you’re not in it. You don’t know what they’re feeling. You have to be able to draw that out of them or for them to be able to get it to you.

“Young players are excellent at that and it’s a really good Irish trait. They’re very conscientious about getting better. They really take it upon themselves to figure it out and take responsibility, and that’s a real pleasure to work with as a coach.”