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O'Kelly thriving in retirement and confident Schmidt has team moving in right direction


First step: Joe Schmidt steered Ireland to opening win
First step: Joe Schmidt steered Ireland to opening win

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

As he settles himself into a chair in an Aviva Stadium suite, Malcolm O'Kelly still looks like he could do a job down on the pitch below.

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Now 43, he has hung up the boots for good after dabbling a bit in the junior ranks for Malahide and taking part in some legends games. Rugby played a huge part in his life, but he's a civilian now and has fully adjusted to the real world.

It helps, he said, that he always kept one foot outside the bubble, but even still there was a big part of him that struggled with the adjustment to normal life.

Nine years after retiring from a career that gave him so much, he sometimes wonders about whether he could play a bigger part in it but then he looks at his former team-mates in the coaching game and understands why it wouldn't work.

"I never used to listen to a coach, so I can't imagine anyone would listen to me," he says with a wry smile.

Instead, he works as a Business Development Executive for Tekno surgical - the company he joined a year after calling time on his rugby career in the weeks that followed Leinster's first Heineken Cup win.

"It's different for everyone, I wouldn't say I always had one foot in the real world but I was always very aware of it and I always felt there was a career there for me before rugby - even though I didn't participate in it," he said.

"I always thought I'd be an engineer, that I could go down that road and even when I was playing I saw myself as something else other than a rugby player.

"So when I came out (of rugby) I didn't know what that something else was. The only thing I said to myself was 'I'm taking a year before I set foot into something else' and I did, I didn't start work until June.

"I found a role, it was a leap of faith and I was introduced to someone to do it and I thought I could do it.

"I started that in June, nothing fancy - just see how I fared - and I've been doing that now for six and a half years, I know it pretty well now. It took a while, you've to learn on the job, there's a lot of technical stuff but yeah.

"I had just started a family, we'd our first kid the February after I retired and two more kids then - twins - a couple of years later. That just took over.

"It's been tough, it hasn't been easy, you're changing what you know, what you're about and sometimes you wonder 'what was I?' 'what am I now?' 'what should I be doing?'

"You're always looking around the next corner and wondering if you should be doing something different, maybe a coach or media or... you're always second guessing yourself.

"For me, when I finished, family became... not so much a crutch, but so much more important.

"Back when you were playing rugby it was your rugby family.

"I was lucky, you hear about relationships breaking up when guys finish and things like that, it's a very tough time for guys.

"But you just have to get on with life, take it step by step, do something you might enjoy and get on with it."

Last Saturday, he watched Ireland's win over France from the Newstalk studio and yesterday he was in the Aviva doing promotional work with Volkswagen.

So, he keeps his connection to the game without the day-to-day involvement and was impressed with Ireland's performance despite their needing a last-gasp drop-goal from Johnny Sexton to win it.

"It's just the nature of some of these games, go back to any game in Paris in the recent Six Nations in the last four-to-six years, there's nothing between the sides," he said.

"It's not like suddenly we've become a much better team and we're flying ahead, these are top international teams and the only thing between them is going to be the bounce of a ball, the top two inches.

"We were more deserving of that win, even though the last few minutes was insane, chaotic and needed a moment of brilliance. We were more than one point better.

"I know it doesn't always come out, but we got over the line in the end."

O'Kelly believes Joe Schmidt's side need a greater creative spark if they are to kick on from their current position.

"I suppose what you need is another couple of creative (players)... at the moment they are heavily reliant on Johnny (Sexton), especially with the centres.

"I suppose I've come from an era of playing with Drico (Brian O'Driscoll, D'Arce (Gordon D'Arcy), Shaggy (Shane Horgan)... all creative players and maybe the game has changed a bit and it's all about finding the gainline and at the very best an off-load - space is a premium.

"(Garry) Ringrose, for me, was one that had something, potential, but he's struggled to stay on the pitch this season... (Jordan) Larmour, (Joey) Carbery, it's finding a place for some of these guys as well as the real tough Bundee Akis... there has to be a balance.

"I think it's a bit heavy in directness at the moment.

"What we have that the others don't have is a level of structure, a frame-work to allow our players to flourish that France don't have.

"Ireland have the nous and are a smarter team than France and that was the real difference."

He's been impressed by James Ryan, even if his capacity to pick up injuries is a concern.

"He's got everything going for him," he said. "He just needs to stay on the pitch. He's already captain material. The path is there for him - injuries are the main concern.

"It's all about whether or not he can sustain performance. His first cap (in the Six Nations), he had a great game, and that's great, but you know, if he wants to be a 100 cap second-row for Ireland, and do it for Ireland 100 times, then that means doing it for Leinster 250 times. It's a long road, and you need durability."

Over the course of his 92-cap career, O'Kelly showed plenty of that.

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