Jump to main content



O’Connell Pleased With Lineout Improvements, But ‘Plenty Of Battles Ahead Of Us’

O’Connell Pleased With Lineout Improvements, But ‘Plenty Of Battles Ahead Of Us’

Ireland forwards coach Paul O'Connell spoke this week about the team's sharp set-piece play and the lasting legacy of recently-retired captain Jonathan Sexton ©INPHO/Ben Brady

Coming into the middle round of the Guinness Men’s Six Nations Championship, leaders Ireland are the only team with a 100% lineout success rate on their own throw.

They began their Six Nations title defence with a 13-out-of-13 return away to France, and matched that figure at home to Italy last Sunday. A strong start in an area of their game that came in for some criticism during the Rugby World Cup.

Along with a reinforced scrum that forced four penalties, Andy Farrell said the set-piece was ‘the best part of our game by a mile’ last weekend. As Ronan Kelleher mentioned in the build-up, there were tweaks and finetuning of the lineout but ‘no major revamp’ post-World Cup.

Mindful that there will be tougher challenges ahead in the coming weeks, forwards coach Paul O’Connell said: “We haven’t changed a massive amount (in the lineout). I’d say we’re doing what we do a little bit better, across the board.

“How we lift, how we jump, how we call, how we throw, and all those things contribute. In the World Cup, certainly in that South Africa game, they threw something different at us. We got our drill a little bit wrong and it led to a poor start to the game.

“Once we got over that, we were pretty much fine for the rest of the game. New Zealand got three lineouts off us in that game – two we got back straight away, one we unfortunately high-tackled from and we ended up in our corner.

It’s like every part of your game, it’s never just one thing. There’s drill in it, there’s the call in it, there’s the thrower in it, there’s the selections you put on the menu first day.

“I would say we’ve kind of improved a little bit in all of those regards, without working on one particular thing.”

He was also quick to point out that circumstances were in Ireland’s favour during those first two fixtures, with France losing key lock Paul Willemse to a first half red card, and Italy, who currently have the tournament’s worst lineout success rate of 72.4%, not contesting a number of the Irish throws.

“France having a red card for one of their second rows helped, certainly. Willemse probably isn’t a big jumper for them, but he’s certainly a big lifter and it would have upset how they would have defended.

“Italy haven’t challenged as much in the air in recent years as other teams. So, that’s part of it.”

The lineout platform was pivotal in Marseille, providing the launchpad for all five of Ireland’s tries on the night – including two maul efforts from hookers Dan Sheehan and Kelleher.

On the opposition throw, Tadhg Beirne, the lineout caller against France, came up with two steals in that first round clash, while Joe McCarthy and Ryan Baird had one steal each during Ireland’s first home match of 2024.

Sheehan added two more tries against Italy – the latter one off a forwards drive – to make him the tournament’s leading try scorer so far. Along with his brace against England last year, he is the first hooker to have scored two tries in two separate matches in the Championship.

Some were predicting a dip in Ireland’s form following their disappointing World Cup exit and the loss of both Jonathan Sexton and Keith Earls to retirement. They are also missing the injured Mack Hansen, Jimmy O’Brien, Dave Kilcoyne, and Rob Herring.

O’Connell is not getting too carried away but there are positive signs, with five Six Nations debutants in recent weeks, that the squad will continue to build on the lasting legacies of long-serving captain Sexton and fellow centurion Earls.

Earls was on the phone to help calm Calvin Nash’s nerves during the build-up to the France game. A player very much in the same mould as the former British & Irish Lion, the 26-year-old winger responded with two tries across the tournament’s first fortnight.

Indeed, Nash is just the third Irish player to score a try in each of his first two Six Nations appearances since Shane Horgan (2000) and John Kelly (2002-2003). Irish rugby great Brian O’Driscoll praised him for ‘running with a genuine spark’ and ‘such intent’.

Captain Peter O’Mahony and Caelan Doris, who was skipper last week, have learned from the guidance, direction and standard-setting that Sexton provided during his talismanic reign. His influence remains very much within the current squad, according to O’Connell.

Asked how some of the other players have taken up the mantle in Sexton’s absence, he replied: “I think one thing that maybe Johnny has given a lot of the guys is, he’s shown how much you have to care about the team.

“How much you have to care about you prepare, and how much you care about how the team feels come Saturday. He’s a great example to some of the guys who are going to end up as leaders in the team.

“So while he’s gone, I think a bit of his legacy of how he used to go about his business still lives on with us. A lot of the guys, Pete, Caelan, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Garry Ringrose, they have a few of his qualities in them that help us to get to a good place every Saturday.

I think a lot of these guys have learned how to prepare really well and to prepare the team really well from Johnny. There’s no point denying it, he is a big part of how we play but he is a big part of how we prepare in the weeks as well.

“He was a big part of how we trained. He drove a very high standard because of the high standards he had himself.

“So to not have him in there in the week, in the build-up to a big game like (France) and to prepare well and out there on the day…it’s a good reflection on the leadership that has been built up over the the last few years.”

He added: “It’s not going to be easy without Johnny, I’m sure there will be plenty of tough games. But I think the leadership did a great job. Obviously Jack Crowley did a great job at out-half as well.

“I’m not surprised. You’re very hopeful with the work we’ve done, with all the players comes through, but you’re a bit nervous that it mightn’t happen as well. But we’re only two games in, and we’ve plenty of battles ahead of us.”