Paul O’Connell relishing watching brief as Ireland’s forwards put through their paces

Ireland forwards coach confirms he just loves the scrummaging sessions as current generation prepare for World Cup start

Some players, like Brian O’Driscoll, have the fairytale ending. Some players, like Paul O’Connell, do not.

So, whereas one Irish legend signed off with a Six Nations title in Paris after a 22-20 win over France in March 2014, the other had his 2015 World Cup and career summarily ended when his hamstring was torn off the bone in the final play of the first half in the concluding pool match against France in Cardiff, when Ireland topped the pool thanks to a 25-9 win.

“Ah, look, it is what it is. It is what it is,” reasoned O’Connell after the Irish squad trained on Tuesday in Tours, the Irish forwards coach having long since come to terms with how his career ended so anticlimactically.

That said, his abiding regret is as much the collective damage caused to the Irish team in also seeing Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton join Jared Payne on the injured list, as well as Seán O’Brien through suspension for the quarter-final defeat by Argentina a week later. Of all the five players to lose for a quarter-final! A week after beating France 24-9, Ireland were beaten 43-20 by Los Pumas.


“I thought we were in a great place as a team, we’d excellent leadership as a team, a real understanding of what the coach wanted and how he wanted it done.

“We’d a group of players that were very good at driving that, delivering that and unfortunately a few of those guys got injured for that game against Argentina. We hit a really hot Argentina team on the day. It was really disappointing.

“I was disappointing as well not to spend 18 months in the south of France,” added O’Connell on a personal level, as his planned move to Toulon also had to be called off.

“But when I think of myself now as a retired player eight years later, I’m physically in a very good place where some guys struggle and I don’t know if I would be in such a good place if I spent 18 months down in France when Toulon were beginning to struggle a little bit. So, that’s the silver lining of it I suppose,” he said with a wry grin.

“It was disappointing to go out the way we did. We always had our struggles against France, [but] by the time we played them in that World Cup we played really well against them. We were in a really good place, but lost a bit of leadership for Argentina and we hit a hot team. That was a disappointing exit and a disappointing end for sure.”

The sense is that, eight years on, this 2023 Irish vintage is not dissimilar. While it may have even more quality, if you took out five of the key men later in the tournament, this team may well struggle too.

But O’Connell maintains this is “a better Irish team”, and while he would say that, wouldn’t he, judged by their body of work in the last 2½ years, he’s entitled so do so.

“Physically, a lot of us were incredibly committed but these guys – there’s some serious athletes in the team, particularly in the forward pack. Guys that can accelerate quickly, they can change direction really quick,” said O’Connell, with the new breed of Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Rónan Kelleher, James Ryan and Caelan Doris in mind.

“A lot of them are the product of really good coaching from a very young age at under-20s, in academies. They’ve had different coaches in their provinces and because of that they pick things up really quickly and they’ve really good leadership and ownership of going about their business,” he added, as if almost, in awe, or at any rate wonder.

“We’ve players that are able to figure things out really quickly. We can come up with something and they will adapt it to their game quickly. That’s the biggest thing I’ve found since I’ve come back into the Irish set-up two years ago, the smarts of the players is a real strength of theirs. So, I think they’re further down the track than any Irish team I played in, for sure.”

As expected, O’Connell confirmed that one of those aforementioned new breed of Irish forwards, namely Sheehan, will not have recovered in time for Romania from the sprained ligament in his foot which he sustained against England last Saturday week.

Nor indeed, will Jack Conan, who suffered a similar injury two weeks previously against Italy, while David Kilcoyne (hamstring) is also “struggling a little bit”.

O’Connell did intimate that all three players will be fit and available for Ireland’s second gamer against Tonga on Saturday week in Nantes, but of course that remains to be seen, particularly with regard to Sheehan.

Rob Herring and Kelleher will thus be the hookers in the match-day 23 against Romania, while Andrew Porter and Jeremy Loughman will be the loosehead props, with Caelan Doris set to start at number eight, most likely alongside Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier.

In what is likely to be a strong selection, and close to full-strength, in addition to Kelleher the other player not to play a minute in the warm-ups, Johnny Sexton, looks a probable starter.

The absence of Sheehan and Kilcoyne won’t have prevented the live scrummaging which is customary in training, and which John Fogarty revealed had been labelled “box office” by O’Connell.

“I just enjoy watching the scrums,” explained O’Connell. “Wednesday is performance day and we go at it pretty hard. There’s a lot of mauling, we’re trying to gas the players a little bit and then train under a little bit of stress and pressure, and the same with the scrums.

“We’re trying to stay really disciplined so they tend to be very competitive scrummaging sessions. They tend to be quite long scrums because we don’t want collapsed scrums, we don’t want players going on the outside. They tend to have to stay in the battle for quite some time, and also you’ve guys now who have gotten their chances and performed really, really well. You’ve a few older guys that can feel a bit of heat coming from the younger guys, so they tend to be very, very competitive sessions.

“Some guys see the scrum as their real point of difference, so that’s their big, big session of the week. In the last few weeks, that scrummaging session on a Wednesday has been the most enjoyable session of the week for me. It doesn’t last long but it’s great to watch.”

A pity it’s behind closed doors.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times