Career coach not quite the inevitable next step for Paul O’Connell

Munster man felt it was important to take step back after playing days ended

Even the briefest conversation with Paul O’Connell can be educational. He might, if you’re lucky, mention Bill Walsh. Perhaps the greatest NFL coach of them all, winning three Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers, in 1992 Walsh stumbled off the treadmill a burnt-out soul.

Such knowledge helps us understand why O’Connell the career coach is not as inevitable a scenario as most Irish people would believe it to be.

Maybe he has mellowed in retirement, maybe fatherhood has changed him, maybe he is happy to be turning at 37 to a part-time role preparing Munster academy recruits for the rigours of professionalism.

Maybe, actually definitely, he looked at Anthony Foley and Leo Cullen piling head-first into the results-driven pressure cooker, or Gordon D'Arcy and Eoin Reddan leaving the game for the world of business, and decided to bide his time.

"I am with the academy, advising, mentoring and doing a little bit of coaching. Helping the coaches and learning from the coaches," said O'Connell at the IRFU 'Play Rugby' initiative sponsored by Aldi.

Toulon’s loss must feel like a godsend to O’Connell.

“I have been on the rugby treadmill for 15 years now and while I want off it for a while to do other things I still want to stay plugged in to rugby. It’s a part-time role that keeps me involved in a low-profile way. And it keeps me in Munster, where I love.

Step back

“I haven’t committed to anything big. That’s difficult because you are really eager to do things when you finish but I think the most important thing is to take a step back. That hasn’t been easy either.”

O’Connell’s trademark obsessive fire appears to have been, at least temporarily, doused. Surely he won’t be able to leave rugby well alone?

“I’d like to think I could. Obsessed? Just don’t know how healthy that is.

"Coaching is a very tough job if you've young family and I have read a lot about that as well; about Jim Walsh, the San Francisco 49ers coach, and how you need balance.

“I didn’t always have that when I played. As a coach if you don’t have a bit of balance you are going to struggle in other aspects of your life.”

Fine. For now.

But what of Munster under Erasmus? “I already see some really good new habits. I think they got Rassie at the right time. But I think expectations are a little more realistic now. That’s going to be important.”

And what of the increasing signs that Joe Schmidt will be Ireland coach until the 2019 World Cup in Japan? "It's massively important. I only have experience of a few coaches so for me to say he is the best coach in the world is not a fully educated position but he is the best coach I ever worked with.

“He makes players better.

“Some coaches are good for a period. They go through a phrase where they are at the top of their game then fade away. That doesn’t seem to happen with Joe. He evolves ahead of the game.”

The IRFU denied reports that a new contract had been signed. “Joe will be doing everything for the right reasons. I don’t think money will motivate him massively. I’d say he does have ambitions towards the New Zealand job but that can all happen in time.

“I think he wants to leave Irish rugby in as great a position as he can.”

Anyway, back to Walsh. The late NFL coach penned three books, the first he insisted had to be "a real football book" and not some take-the-money-and- run autobiography. Finding the Winning Edge was not offered as a sports book but a thesis.

O'Connell's literary debut – The Battle – is imminent. Written with Alan English, presumably he approached the story of his life with the same standards we saw from the gargantuan lock who ploughed the Killing Fields to Cardiff in the last great career to thread between amateur and professional rugby.

“I’ll have to let ye be the judge of that.”

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