poc return | 

Masterstroke paves the way for O'Connell to be a driving force in the Irish game for next decade

23 February 2018; Ireland assistant coach Paul O'Connell prior to the U20 Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Wales at Donnybrook Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

23 February 2018; Ireland assistant coach Paul O'Connell prior to the U20 Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Wales at Donnybrook Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Five years to the day since Joe Schmidt brought Andy Farrell on board as his defence coach, his successor recruited a similarly influential assistant coach to his own backroom staff.

In January 2016, much was made of the fact that Paul O’Connell's retirement had left a quiet dressing-room and that the former rugby league star, whose Lions tour speeches had become YouTube hits, would add some motivational oomph to proceedings.

Like Farrell, O'Connell has a name for rousing pre-game oration and at times his input on that front will be needed. But what the head coach wants from the former Ireland captain is his game knowledge, his empathy, and his renowned attention to detail as he comes on board for the remainder of the World Cup cycle.

Just over a month after Farrell became a member of Schmidt’s ticket in January 2016, O’Connell confirmed that he’d be retiring because of the hamstring injury he suffered at the 2015 World Cup.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile

His announcement came through the IRFU media channels and, while he has remained close to the performance side of the union in the years since, they have not been able to find a home for him.

He worked with the youngsters at Munster for a while, had a stint as forwards coach with the Ireland U-20s and spent a season with Stade Francais. Last spring, he was brought in by Farrell to get a taste of things in the build-up to Ireland's loss to England at Twickenham.

Performance director David Nucifora spoke about not wanting to "waste a resource like Paul O'Connell", but there was a growing sense in the game that the year in Paris soured his experience.

With his young family, the all-consuming nature of the role appeared to concern a man for whom obsession was a trademark characteristic during his playing days.

With a variety of ambassadorships and business interests and his role with the BBC keeping him in touch with the game, he was in danger of slipping out of coaching until yesterday's announcement.

Television's loss is Ireland's gain.

"He's a highly intelligent person with a highly intelligent rugby brain. I took a lot of his ideas, being honest," said Mike Prendergast – O'Connell's friend, former team-mate and colleague at Stade – last season.

"He's been exposed to so many different coaches through the Lions, with Ireland. The knowledge he has. I know he’s out of it this year, but I hope he does go back into it because he has so much to pass on.

"He enjoyed it, it was a different challenge . . . parts of the coaching staff wanted to play with ambition and certain parts of the staff weren’t and that sometimes happens. We were all put together, effectively, but he’s got so much to offer."

O'Connell's remit within the Irish set-up will primarily focus around the struggling lineout.

With Rory Best retired and Devin Toner out of the picture, the set-piece struggled in 2020, and while O'Connell can't go out and call things himself, his input in preparing the set-piece will be invaluable to the inexperienced players tasked with running things.

The most experienced lock in the set-up, Iain Henderson, is in danger of missing the Six Nations and if he does they will proceed with James Ryan leading the lineout with Rob Herring or Rónan Kelleher throwing in.

Although Herring made his debut alongside O’Connell, he remains inexperienced at this level while the Leinster young gun is still raw.

With Simon Easterby juggling the lineout and defence, the team’s set-piece was not at the level it had been at times under Joe Schmidt.

Easterby can now focus on implementing the defensive system, while his old team-mate can bring his remarkable knowledge to the lineout.

For Ryan, O'Connell's presence will be invaluable as he looks to take the next step as a leader.

Named captain when Johnny Sexton was out injured during the autumn, the 24-year-old looked burdened by the responsibility at times.

Having a 108-times capped former Ireland and Lions skipper who played in the same position will be huge for Ryan, while O'Connell's presence will also be a boon for Johnny Sexton who is close to his old skipper and will respect his input.

Now 41, O'Connell's connection to the dressing-room is limited to a handful of experienced players who largely make up the leadership group and that can help forge a link between the senior players and the coaches.

IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora. Photo: Sportsfile

IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora. Photo: Sportsfile

Of course, he remains a young coach in experience terms, and while he worked under some of the best in the business during his playing days, the Limerick native will still have to hone his coaching style.

That's a skill in itself, but there is no doubting the knowledge base and skill-set he brings to the party as Ireland seek to close the gap on England and France in the immediate term.

In their three 2020 defeats, their set-piece was found wanting as the opposition applied huge pressure in the knowledge they could get a big reward.

O'Connell's analytical mind can help head those threats off at the pass, while his work in preparing Ireland's defensive lineout can make it a weapon in itself.

That's the short-term gain. In the long-term, Farrell and Nucifora have paved the way for a legendary figure to be a driving force in the Irish game for the next decade at the very least.

The Australian always insisted Schmidt's replacement would come from within the Irish system and while he may not directly succeed his new boss, O'Connell will get at least three seasons of international experience before he considers his next move.

At some stage, Munster will need a new coach and Ronan O'Gara has been plain in his desire to one day work with his old friend in what would be a dream ticket.

For Farrell, whose coaching ticket looked a little thin, the move is a shrewd one, but for Nucifora this is an investment in Irish rugby's future.

Today's Headlines

More Rugby

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices