‘We have to be hard to beat, we can’t give things away and give teams a leg up’

THE GAME HAS not changed to something unrecognisable from his time as a player, the accommodation and even a handful of the playing personnel are the same.

For Paul O’Connell, the biggest changes to the environment since his last involvement in a Six Nations campaign is the training ground and his role within the group.

As a coach, his influence is now limited. His powers transferred to what he can impart rather than what he can reach out and grab in a given moment of the game.

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There is a balance to be stuck during such efforts too. There is any amount of data and detail that coaches could ask players to download before kick-off, but this Ireland squad are being asked to think for themselves rather than learn off solutions by rote.

“You’d love to have more time with the players even during the working week,” said O’Connell in a virtual press conference from the IRFU’s high performance centre in Abbottstown.

“It’s a constant discussion with Andy in terms of how much time you get with the players. But that time restriction is probably what makes you keep things simple. It makes you stick to what is relevant rather than trying to cover off everything. You don’t know what a team is going to do from week to week either. You have to prepare for the unexpected.

“That’s probably the biggest challenge, just trying to get time with the players, try to prepare for the critical few moments in the game rather than trying to cover everything.

“I must say I find that really challenging. It’s a challenge for every young coach, wanting to cover everything. Andy is good is holding the reins on that.”

The threat of Scotland has also changed since O’Connell played his last game in 2015. Their Five Nations Grand Slam was already in the rear view mirror when the current Ireland forwards coach made his international debut as a player. There were years in the doldrums for the national side, but through Gregor Townsend’s influence on the Warriours there was a growing sense of promise.

Now, with England beaten, Scotland have the right to consider themselves title challengers – albeit a challenger who have slipped up against Wales and still have an outstanding clash with France to navigate.

“I think it’s the best Scottish team I’ve ever gone up against as a coach or a player. They’re very well coached, very physical and they’ve got some real x-factor players as well.”

A win and two losses is the headline from Ireland’s campaign so far, but it hardly tells the whole story of a 14-man effort that almost defeated Wales and a close-run thing against the strongest side in the competition.

“We’ve taken confidence, from some of the things we’ve done in the last three games,” says O’Connell.

“We’ve probably been unlucky in some regards and we haven’t helped ourselves in some regards, probably given sides a leg up when we played them. That’s something we can’t do in the next few weeks. You have to be hard to beat, you can’t give things away to teams and we’ve probably done that a little bit.

“In the next two weeks, that’s one of the most important parts of what we have to deliver. We have to be hard to beat, we can’t give things away and give teams a leg up. This Scottish team will take advantage of that.”

That much remains a constant at the top grade of sport.