Paul O’Connell on effective coaching and his time in France

3 December 2020

Kairos co-founder and CEO Andrew Trimble recently caught up with former Irish International rugby player and current coach, Paul O’Connell. They talked about getting coaching balance between the ‘magical’ and the scientific, the styles of some of the greats, and the lessons learned when Paul left Ireland to coach in Paris.

Paul is well known and highly regarded in global rugby circles. As a player,  he won two Heineken cups and three Pro14 titles with Munster, three six nations championships with Ireland, and is a three-time Lions tourist; captaining all three along the way. After his playing career came to an end, he became an assistant coach with the Ireland Under-20s team, and then joined French Top 14 club Stade Français as their new forward’s coach in August 2018, but left after just one season.

In sport, there’s seen to be an artistic, even magical side, and the scientific, data-driven side. How do you balance between the two – across any sport?

If you’re thinking too much about what you have to do, and how you’re gonna move your body, it’s very hard to be good at it. The science aspect gives you the information to improve, but you need to be able to become natural with the information that science gives you. Golf is an example of a sport where balance is very important – Padraig Harrington came and spoke to us in 2009, he told us about 3 weeks out from a major he used to have to stop trying to think too much about his golf swing – he had an imaginary line behind the golf ball, and he’d figure out what he was going to do, and once he crossed the line there was no more thinking, he’d just hit the ball. He had to practice getting out of thinking about swing planes, grip, the height of his hands and where they should be on the release, and all that, and he’d do this three weeks out. If you’re not natural and playing with feel it’s very hard to hit a good shot but at the same time science and sports technology give you so much information that can make you better, you have to be able to marry the two. 

Q: There’s been a lot of talk recently about different coaching styles, for example, the transition from Joe Schmidt to Andy Farrell as Ireland Rugby head coach, from your coaching experience is there a specific style that you think is the best? Or is it a hybrid of all the different coaches that made an impression on you?

Paul: That’s a very broad question – I think certain coaches work for certain people. In terms of being able to deliver real habit change and being able to plan something and then deliver it exactly as planned, there was no one like Joe Schmidt. When it came to actual coaching and teaching and habit change it was no one that could do it like Schmidt (to me). He was a teacher first and foremost. There’s no surprise that a  lot of coaches have done a four-year degree on how to coach. A lot of coaches are qualified teachers in so many sports, Brian Ashton, Stuart Lancaster, Graham Henry. The ability to transfer the information is an overlooked skill – people think you have to have intimate knowledge of rugby and you have to know more about the game than everyone else as a coach. I don’t think that’s true. You have to be a good teacher or coach. You can learn nearly everything there is to learn about the game. You can watch every single game of rugby. Any person can learn the game inside out now. But the ability to coach and teach and transfer information is what separates people. And I think Joe Schmidt was ahead in that regard. Eddie Jones at the moment, he seems to be very similar. What he coaches what he works on gets delivered on Saturday. That for me is where really good coaching is. I would say Gatland and Shaun Edwards, and the Welsh coaching staff were the same. They were able to deliver what they were working on during the week. I think a lot of coaches the review on Monday is “You know we told you about this, we told you this was going to happen” And they are blaming the players when the real thing is you didn’t change the habit as a coach or you didn’t transfer information to make the player be able to do well under pressure. 

Q: Are coaches one thing or the other? For example, is Joe Schmidt is the scientist and Rassie Erasmus the artist? Is it as simple as that, or is it a bit of both?

Paul:  I don’t think so. Rassie would have a lot of data that backs up how he plays, and he feels that it suits the South African mentality and physique. And I think the way he plays, as well, is suited to international rugby, it’s suited to all or nothing rugby. I can’t imagine playing that way would be enjoyable for players or players would be able to endure it for that long. But he does have a lot of science behind how he plays. And then he’s able to marry that with being a brilliant inspirational character as well. I think he does have a lot of science behind him. I think a lot of the best coaches have very clear principles; they know how they want to play, what they want to do, what they want to coach. They are rarely looking at everyone else and try to copy what they’re doing. Everyone talks about the clarity that Joe Schmidt gave you allowed you to do your job really well. Warrant Gatland was the same.

My first time playing – an unbelievably simple clear game plan was under Warren Gatland in 2009. And it was the Welsh game plan – the simplicity of it, the knowledge of where you had to go at every single moment in the game allowed you to deliver a pretty detailed way of playing but in a really simple way and it allowed you to be quite physical in the delivery. I think Stuart Lancaster is the same, New Zealand is the same – the simplicity of the game allows them to be detailed in the delivery of it. And I think Joe was the same as well.

Q: It’s the intangible contribution to the coaching ticket that you can’t really tie-down. You mentioned Rassie is very good at motivating the players, getting that emotional edge. And I wonder about Ronan O’Gara and Johno Gibbs – is that a lovely kind of balance of two people with quite contrasting styles but they seem to do a job really well done together. And they both kind of provide whatever they are strong at.

Paul: I think if you [as a coach] have to motivate players, you’re in trouble. 

It’s about inspiring them [players] to something better and bigger than maybe they already are. Then I think you’re in a good place, and that’s probably where Rassie was when he went to South Africa. He took over a very motivated group. Any coach that takes over an Irish province is taking over a very motivated group. The vast majority of them are playing for the club they grew up wanting to play for, which is really important in professional rugby, and it’s a real separator for the Irish provinces. And it’s now about inspiring them and delivering a way of playing and coaching that they enjoy, that they believe in and want to take ownership of – though it’s easier said than done sometimes. A lot of people are playing the same way now but they’re not coaching it the same way. Joe had a great saying: “It’s not the play you do, it’s how you do the play.” Nearly every team is copying plays. Nearly everyone is beginning to copy Exeter at the moment; the way they attack from five metres out, the way they put a forward around the corner and go behind him. But, can they actually coach it the way Exeter do? That is the challenge. It’s not the way you want to play it, it’s how it’s delivered and how it’s coached or how players deliver it.

Q: If you go back to Munster’s two Heineken cup wins in 2006 and 2008, that was a very simple game plan. Executed to absolute perfection. Was it as simple as that?

A:  It’s a different era I think. The coaching and your smarts and technical and tactical nouse weren’t as important. It was about the quality of the players you had, and how motivated you were. Under Declan Kidney we had very very good players, he always had a happy squad, and we always took ownership of what we were doing, but there was nothing like the detail that there is in the game now. Coaching is now a big separator in how teams perform. I don’t think it was as big of a separator back then.

Q: Do you think it would be good for a lot more young Irish players to get over there and experience going to France like you did? And would it be good for Irish rugby to see some of these guys get those kinds of experiences?

Paul: I think from the rugby point of view the coaching, medical set, planning for life after rugby is better in Ireland than in France. You get managed better in the terms of the number of games you play in, so from a strict rugby sense, I would say no. But from the challenges for your brain and life, I thought it was great. I was over there for only a year. It was unbelievably enjoyable and incredibly difficult and in many regards. But, if you look at rugby if you might have a 14-year rugby career if you have this opportunity to live in France, to learn the language, to stretch your brain a bit, and play it’s a brilliant thing to do. But if your only objective in life is to be the best rugby player in the world then it’s probably not the place to be. And there might be a bit of a physical toll to be paid by going there as well. 

In terms of life, it’s a brilliant thing to do. 

Q: What are the differences between the professional set-ups in Ireland and France?

Paul: They haven’t got the same academy system over in France that we have here. The same long term investment hasn’t gone into the players. Some of the basics of some of the players would be quite behind the Irish players. Irish players, our strength is not that we are the biggest or fastest, but I think we produce really well-coached and smart rugby players. A lot of that investment goes on in the academy, throughout the year in terms of coaching there’s a big investment made in making the players smart and sharp, players that can win games that they shouldn’t win. In France, this investment hasn’t happened yet. Because of relegation in France, there’s a lot of short-term thinking, and you end up with a really ‘mixed-bag’ of a squad – and that really challenging to work and coach with, but great fun at the same time. Hours are really long, and you give it what you can. In Ireland when a guy comes through the academy, you know when you get him to training you know he’s going to be well trained and sharp tactically, maybe not so in France. 

Q: What about the experience you had in Paris as a coach? Did you decide coaching wasn’t right for you at that time, or, are you keeping the door open for coaching down the line?

Paul: It didn’t put me off coaching, I really enjoyed it. Just that the work hours of coaching are phenomenal. Like we had a game on Saturday, then you watch the video for 5 hours on Sunday. You’re then in at 5 o’clock in the morning Monday and Tuesday because you’re presenting to the players and trying to produce a good presentation to try and change habits and deliver a message – on Monday you have to put the previous game behind you. So a massive workload in reviewing the game and putting it to bed. And Tuesday you’re trying to get ready for the following week. That’s just the way we did it. And I’m sure the longer you’re in it, the quicker you get at doing the work, the quicker you see things. But for me, it was a massive workload and with three young kids, it was tricky. Heyneke Meyer was the head coach, a lovely man, and a great guy, but had a very different way of looking at the game and preparing, so I ended up signing for one year and leaving after that year.

I don’t regret leaving, I probably would have liked to stay in France longer because it is a very cool country.

Q: Looking back on the success of Munster in the Heineken Cup, has your perspective changed at all the balance between how you win and developing culture, how did that team develop?

Paul: You have to be obsessed with winning, and you always have to be thinking of how to solve that conundrum of how it can affect your life, and you can get to a good place. I’d rather have that problem over a guy that really enjoys himself, but isn’t that bothered about winning or losing. I’d rather be trying to figure out how not to be so obsessed with winning and figuring out how to enjoy myself rather than trying to convince someone that winning is pretty important and it’s not just about enjoying yourself. 

You’re now back in Munster coaching three teams – Munster seniors, Young Munster,  and underage teams at Bohs. How important is it for ex-players to give back and working on developing young players?

Paul: I think it’s a bit of everything. But coaching makes a massive difference in rugby. Kids can go out and play a game of soccer against each other and get better at it, similar to hurling. But rugby is just so complex that coaching can play such a massive role. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated, but it is hard to coach young kids rugby. It’s such a complex game, you have to be patient when teaching kids. 

You need to figure out what is important; for me at that level is just catching and passing. Tackling is hard and you have to learn. But if you get kids that are able to catch and pass, everything else in the professional game can be coached when they are older. But comfort on the ball; to be able to catch and pass and make decisions – you need to be doing that for a long time. You can’t learn that as a professional player. Even when I looked at New Zealand’s games after lockdown, a lot of the set-piece and strategic kicking stuff was inferior to what we do in the northern hemisphere, but their power and speed, and their catch-pass is phenomenal. And their decision making. Ours is a long way behind that. If you can put a massive emphasis on that from a very young age and coach all these kids – to catch-pass under pressure, that mentality, that’s where the biggest gains can be made. But it’s not easy because everybody wants to coach the line out or the ruck and they’re just so complicated. You have to spend a lot of time. But the real separator is the catch-pass. We didn’t do a lot of catch-pass in my rugby life until I went professional. That was the first time I was ever really coached or taught it, whereas now it seems to be going down through the game, but I think we could probably be better. 

Tony Buckley was telling me, in New Zealand they played touch rugby at small-break, full-contact rugby at big-break, and then they played rugby after school as well. So an 18 or 19-year that’s playing under 20 that is playing against the Irish U20s has accumulated 100 if not 1000 more hours of rugby and catch-pass and decision-making than an Irish kid. That’s our big challenge is; increase the number of hours they play the game. Not increase the hours spent on learning how to ruck, maul, scrummage. You can coach a lot of that pretty quickly. 


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