Paul O’Connell: It is hard to remain calm, cool and collected in the stand
Ex-Ireland captain relishing life as U20 assistant coach and challenges of it
Ireland U20 assistant coach Paul O’Connell at the World Rugby U20 Championship last month: “I have to move away from the emotional state I had as a player.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Paul O’Connell’s voice reverberates around the Ricoh Arena, one lightly dusted with supporters on a bitterly cold March night. He’s living every moment of Ireland’s final match in the Under-20 Six Nations Championship against England.
His focus is linear, his face animated and a ticker tape of emotions that betray the ebb and flow of the game, exclamations laced with exasperation that escape almost involuntarily, a sluice gate for pent-up emotion. There is no artifice.
One of his many qualities as a player was the passion he brought to everything he did; it defined him as a captain too. Now in the foothills of a coaching career that may or may not ascend further, he doesn’t care to mask or dilute the passion that bubbles beneath the surface and occasionally spills over.
He will address it on a gradual basis, not to neuter his emotion for the optics but because a certain detachment facilitates being able to think clearly; that’s important in the governance of a team. O’Connell accepted an invitation to join the Ireland Under-20 coaching set-up as an assistant to Noel McNamara last December, a little shy of two years after he formally confirmed his injury enforced retirement from rugby following a stellar career as a player, in February 2016.
It was a collusion of opportunity and timing. “Joe [Schmidt] had said it to me once or twice would I be interested in getting involved and I did have an interest, I probably just didn’t have the time. This year time came up for me so I knew I was going to be able to commit and do the Six Nations and World Cup,” O’Connell explained.
“Why? It was just a way to dip my toe in. I was involved with a lot of other stuff and I have a very young family (children Paddy, Lola and Felix with wife Emily). Full-time coaching is all-consuming and when you have a very young family it’s a difficult thing to do. I think that probably as you get older you get better at it and you are able to do things in less time.
“I see coaches who are under pressure family wise and I didn’t want to be in that position. This allows me to do other things but also dip my toe into coaching at a level that’s very rewarding and very enjoyable.
“I am very much here to learn. No matter how much you play as a player you can never understand the amount of work that’s going on in the background as a coach, the amount of preparation, the bits and pieces that are being covered off all the time. While I understood that, you don’t really know it until you experience it.
“One of the attractions of getting involved was that Noel McNamara was there, who I had heard a lot of very good things about. I have really enjoyed sitting in on some of his meetings and watching him present, seeing how he goes about his business.”
Despite losing three matches in the Six Nations, two narrowly, the Ireland Under-20 team played some cracking attacking rugby, even when physically overmatched at times and that courage was very much in evidence again in a heartbreaking 26-24 defeat to tournament hosts France in the opening game of the Under-20 World Championship last Wednesday.
Whatever preconceived ideas O’Connell may have harboured prior to accepting the coaching remit with the Irish Under-20s, his view has been transformed by the experience. Is it everything you expected? “No I wouldn’t say it is. The biggest learning curve is the teaching element of coaching, trying to transfer information.
“When you are playing, you are trying to lead by example and motivate people. I think you have to do that and lead as a coach but your main job is to teach people of all different levels and all different motivations. That for me is the biggest challenge.
“I can see why a lot of teachers are very successful coaches because there are two basic parts to it: there’s rugby knowledge there and then there is the ability to teach people. One is important to the other. I don’t think I struggle with the rugby knowledge part but the teaching part is quite difficult and takes a bit of learning.”
Conversation is briefly retraced to that night in the Ricoh Arena in Coventry where Paul O’Connell, the assistant coach, was periodically supplanted by a previous incarnation, Paul O’Connell, the player. He’s by no means alone in a passionate advocacy from the stands. There are several coaches of long standing who are much more consumed emotionally by events on the pitch; the glass thumpers.
“Passion as a player is really, really important. You certainly need a bit of it as a coach but you have to be able to make decisions. You have to detach a little bit from it to be able to move on quickly from any incidents that happen during the game.
“I have to move away from the emotional state I had as a player. I do think the players need to see how up for it you are and how much it means to you the same as when you were captain of a team [but] you have a whole lot of information that they need to be able to get because they are under pressure on the pitch, they are fatigued and you are not.
“In the build-up to a game I can be quite detached from it. I find that helps as a coach. I probably wasn’t as a player. I was very emotionally involved as a player which was probably important for me as a captain and the type of captain I was. “It is hard during games to remain calm, cool and collected in the stand. It is fairly impressive coaches that can manage to sit there passively. I think that I can manage it sometimes but not all the time.”
He’s relishing the challenge of the coaching environment working with players of disparate mental and physical abilities and trying to help mould them into a team. “[It’s] the same at any level even senior. Not everyone is a Johnny Sexton in terms of motivation and skill set, not everyone is a CJ Stander in terms of their physical prowess.
“You have different people with different skill sets and you are trying to put them in a position to use their skill sets and trying to not put them in a position to be exposed as much as possible. It doesn’t matter whether you are playing for the Lions or Ireland Under-20, that’s the challenge of a coach. All of that is really enjoyable.
“One of the other things that you find out about is that there is just so much going on. There’s injuries, there are guys that can’t train but can play; it’s trying to figure out what the referee is going to do, trying to figure out what the opposition is going to do and then trying to be able to package that into really easily digestible information for a group of young guys that aren’t yet professional rugby players.
“Then there is that part of giving certain bits to certain players who can tolerate it and keeping it simpler for other people. You want to be able to improve players and to change habits. “If you improve players’ habits during a game you are doing a good job and that is probably the biggest challenge of all because they don’t get much time on the pitch.
“They’re constantly in recovery mode with how tough the games these days are. When it comes to getting a window to work on your game and change habits it is quite difficult. Good coaches can make that change with a small window.”
He is in no rush to project forward in terms of coaching. He will enjoy a family holiday and some golf on returning from the World Championship in France and will consider what’s feasible going forward, when asked whether some day he’d like to be a head coach.
He admitted: “I’ll assess when it finishes. Head coaching is a very difficult job. You have to be over so many things. You need to accumulate an awful lot of experience. There are certain people . . . Leo Cullen has made a massive success of it in a very short period of time. But it has been very difficult for other people.
“I think the more experience you have the better. I have enjoyed dipping my toe into it. I will decide later in the summer whether I will enjoy dipping my toe into it again.” Maybe even become fully immersed!