O’Connell knows Irish have a few Bok mountains to climb

Ireland’s forwards coach Paul O'Connell. | AFP

Ireland’s forwards coach Paul O'Connell. | AFP

Published Jul 3, 2024


Zaahier Adams

Paul O’Connell knows a thing or two about facing Springbok man-mountains at line-out time. The former Ireland line-out kingpin was, of course, captain of the British & Irish Lions team that toured South Africa in 2009 when he had to contend with a technical genius in Victor Matfield and his bruiser partner Bakkies Botha.

But now back in the Bok country as Ireland’s forwards coach ahead of what is being considered to be the ultimate heavyweight battle in world rugby at the moment between the two top-ranked sides, Connell feels the four-time world champions remain as competitive as ever at the set piece after Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus named the experienced duo of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert in his starting XV for Saturday’s much-anticipated first Test at Loftus Versveld.

“They are an excellent set-piece side, they are an excellent line-out side, they always have been,” O’Connell told the media at St Peter’s College in Midrand where the Irish have set up camp.

“They caught us out at the start of the game in the World Cup. It was pretty frustrating and disappointing, but I was delighted with how the players managed their way through it.

“Two of their line-out operators, Mostert and Etzebeth, are two of the best in the business. Etzebeth is very good at the front of the line-out. Mostert generally covers everything at the back of the line-out.”

O’Connell feels the best way to overcome the challenge that lies ahead is to not spend too much energy focusing on what the Boks will bring to the contest.

“We have been a little bit specific about them but it has been mainly about doing our stuff a little bit better across the board. The boys enjoy doing that, we enjoy focusing on ourselves,” he said.

“I think you have to focus on what the opposition are going to do, but by and large we focus on ourselves a little bit more than we did back in my playing days. I certainly enjoy it as a coach as well.”

While the line-outs will undoubtedly be keenly contested, O’Connell is well aware that the breakdown could well be the definitive factor in the Test match.

“The breakdown has become a massive part of the game everywhere. You look at the French final, the European Cup final, you look at France, South Africa and the way they are playing, it is a real battlefield,” he said.

“It’s gone back a little bit old school where teams are a lot more willing to risk putting numbers into the breakdown and creating a little bit of havoc in that breakdown.

“Teams have gotten very good at choosing their moments based on the position on the field that a team is in, to go after certain breakdowns.

“They are very good at sensing a little bit of vulnerability, whether it is numbers or someone with a bad body shape at a ruck.

“The decision-making at a breakdown has almost become like the decision- making that players have with ball in hand or the decision-making that players do when they are attacking. It’s a big challenge for us.

“Any time that you play South Africa, the breakdown is always a big challenge.

“Our boys really enjoy it as well, we have some excellent poachers, some excellent counter-ruckers, very good decision-makers at the breakdown. It will be a big part of the game at the weekend.”

The Irish are looking to extend a three-game winning streak that includes a victory at the Rugby World Cup last year in France, over Erasmus’ men in the opening Pretoria Test, but O’Connell was not prepared to take the bait with regards to his team being favourites inside the Bok kraal.

“They are world champions. I got a quick glance at their team. It’s a big thing for any team that is successful to have that kind of continuity,” he said.

“They know what they stand for and I’d say there is a lot of confidence in their group at the moment.

“You look at any of the club sides that have been successful in recent times, they have continuity of coaching, continuity of players, continuity of leadership. They are in a strong position and it is an excellent side that they have named.

“It’s a massive challenge for us to be away from home and down here, but our boys are looking forward to it.”

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