Paul O’Connell urges Ireland players to relax and switch off before massive Scotland showdown
Forwards coach will lean on his past experiences ahead of a massive fortnight
Paul O’Connell has been down this road before as a player – but as a coach, it’s a whole new experience.
As he knows all too well from his playing days, opportunities to win a Grand Slam are few and far between, so when they come around you don’t want to pass them up for fear you may never get another.
O’Connell likens his experience of preparing to win the Grand Slam in 2009 to cramming for an exam that he felt he had to overwork for.
Fear does strange things to people – and, as O’Connell reflects on Ireland’s success 14 years ago, he does so knowing that those past lessons will be vital over the next couple of weeks as he looks to ensure the current squad don’t fall into the same traps.
Not that Ireland’s forwards coach feels that will be the case, because when he looks around the dressing room now he recognises it’s a different environment to the one he was heavily part of.
Three bonus-point wins from three games have left Ireland in a great position to complete the clean sweep against Scotland and England over the final two games, yet as the pressure cranks up a notch ahead of Sunday week’s trip to Edinburgh, O’Connell is eager to lean on his experiences as a player.
“I think it’s just important to keep them relaxed,” O’Connell says.
“There is no fear of guys slackening off – with our lads, your only fear is that they maybe do too much.
“I think we probably did that a little bit. We tried to cram for the exam a little bit back in our day, the week of big games.
“For a lot of these guys, the work is done. It’s about staying relaxed and trusting what they have done.”
With the stakes so high, staying relaxed will be easier said than done – and as much as Andy Farrell has placed a big emphasis on improving his squad’s mental strength by hiring renowned performance coach Gary Keegan, the players wouldn’t be human if they weren’t some bit nervous about what lies ahead.
The majority of the squad will be given the weekend off before returning to camp on Monday. Most players will be able to easily switch off, but, for others, it will be much more difficult, as O’Connell can attest to.
“I think maybe back then we were, you know, you’re afraid to take time off or you’re afraid to take brain-time off,” the Limerick man recalls.
“One of the biggest things about being fresh is being able to switch off when the chance comes.
“Even though it is a down week, we had a big day of meetings, trained yesterday and we trained quite fast today. The players now can let themselves be tired a little bit and switch off, so they bounce in on Monday evening.
“We probably weren’t very good at taking our time off back in the day. We felt we had to be training more than anyone else, or doing more than anyone else.
“I don’t think that’s the right thing when it comes to working.
“You’ve got to work hard, which our boys always do. But it’s important to take the time off so that you can be fresh towards the end of the tournament as well.
“Maybe, in 2009, you kind of feel you have a chance of winning, so you start cramming a little bit.
“You start trying to catch up on some of the work you should have been doing four months before or five months before. But these guys, they’re very conscientious about getting better.
“A lot of them pick their holiday resort based on what the gym is like. They all have Sportscode (analysis software) on their iPads.
“They are good guys, so when they get stuff wrong – as a coach, you kind of feel like it’s your fault rather than their fault.
“We just need to make sure that mentally we’re in a good place when we walk out on the field in the next game against Scotland. That’s the most important thing, and switching off is an important part of that.”
Part of the process of switching off is not shying away from the fact that if Ireland pass a tricky Scottish test, then they will be 80 minutes away from winning a Grand Slam against England at home on Paddy’s weekend.
“Sure, we want to win the competition – and we’d like to win the last two games,” O’Connell says.
“We have said that plenty of times, but I don’t think we have put it up there in shining lights or anything.
“Favouritism is something the boys are well aware of, that we have in most games now – and we talk about it a little bit, but we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it.
“The players are so conscientious about getting better, that’s what they are thinking about.
“If that means we stay close to the top, well and good.”
Certainly, from a forwards’ perspective, O’Connell sees plenty of scope for improvement – as he called on his pack to step it up in Murrayfield.
“It’s been a mixture. Both as a pack and individually, we have been good sometimes,” O’Connell added.
“I don’t think for the last two weeks sometimes will be good enough. And that’s the challenge we have as individuals and as units – scrum, lineout, lineout maul, lineout maul attack.
“We can’t be ‘sometimes’ players for the next two weeks.”
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