Sean Dougall Exclusive: ‘Back to basics’ for Ireland, perspective in France, the Top 14 and La Rochelle

Dougall moved over to France in 2015 and has been on the coaching staff at La Rochelle for almost three years
©Stade Rochelais

Five weeks ago, the Six Nations got underway in Marseille with all eyes on how France and Ireland would react after World Cup quarter-final heartache. 

In the lead up to the championships, the pain of defeat still lingered but it was Ireland who ensured there would be no hangover as they impressively dispatched Les Bleus in their own backyard.

That 38-17 victory on opening night set the tone for the rest of the tournament as Andy Farrell’s side head to Twickenham on Saturday chasing back-to-back Grand Slams.

But in terms of France, they have seemingly gone in the opposite direction.

One person who can offer a unique perspective on the fortunes of both nations is Sean Dougall, the contact skills coach at La Rochelle and former Munster player.

“I’ve been keeping a close eye on France and Ireland mostly,” Dougall tells TRU.

“Every weekend it's been some sort of big occasion, a bit of drama especially the likes of France. That loss against Ireland on the first weekend was a bit of a shock for everyone here in France and seeing how on form Ireland have been in particular has been impressive.

“Following on from the draw, France nearly losing against Italy, again everyone here in France was a little surprised and disappointed with the overall performance. Yet still it’s been entertaining so far and I'm looking forward to the next couple of rounds.”

Dougall's observations shed light on Ireland's resurgence post-World Cup. Last October, their 28-24 quarter-final loss to New Zealand ended a 17-match winning streak but the 34-year-old has been impressed by their remarkable organisational prowess and hunger for improvement.

“They’ve bounced back strongly since the World Cup,” adds Dougall. “They look really well organised. They’ve got their big players on form, they look like favourites to go on and win it. Especially after the World Cup with it being disappointing for them all, to see the reaction they’ve had has been impressive.

“Their breakdown work has always been a strength and I think that’s been a big point of difference. Their ruck speed is very quick and that’s always been the case for a long time now. When Ireland have quick ruck ball with their attack shape, they’re always hard to stop.

“I think it probably comes back to basics around that comeback. It’s a real strength of theirs. Up front as well with their line out, Paul O’Connell (Ireland’s forwards coach) has been brilliant throughout the Six Nations.

“It’s nice to see Caelan Doris and Tadhg Furlong finding form for Ireland and it’s interesting to see how important they are to the team.”

Dougall also commended Ireland's adaptability, particularly in the absence of seasoned players like Johnny Sexton

Farrell’s decision to appoint Peter O’Mahony as captain meant Ireland had a figurehead to instantly turn to at the start of the Six Nations while the seamless introduction of talents like Jack Crowley and Joe McCarthy have only added to the evolution.

“I think it’s been a smooth transition for Ireland in that way. Crowley strikes me as a player who has a good temperament, and it goes without saying that Johnny Sexton left a big void,” says Dougall.

“In comes Jack who seems to have filled the role really well. It’s a really positive sign for Ireland going forward because he’s only young.”

Despite Ireland’s formidable form, Dougall acknowledges the looming threats posed by England and Scotland in their final two Six Nations games, hinting at the challenges that lie ahead in their quest for back-to-back Grand Slams.

“England will be in a spot where they’ve got a lot to play for and I imagine that environment will be fired up going into that Irish game. I think if Ireland can get past it, they’ll be on track for that back-to-back.

“Even Scotland now as well and their performance against England, Scotland will be a huge threat for Ireland. It’s gonna be a tough couple of rounds for Ireland. The way they’ve been playing, with their players that are in form at the moment, I can’t see why they can’t go ahead and do it again.”

Since leaving Ireland in 2015, it is clear Dougall has kept a close eye on the national side whilst also calling France ‘home’.

And having lived across the Channel for almost a decade, he has witnessed the rollercoaster of emotions experienced by fans and players alike when it comes to Les Bleus.

France will resume their underwhelming Six Nations campaign against Wales on Sunday, and Dougall gave an insight into the mood of the supporter base.

“That first round against Ireland was a big surprise I think for everyone because of the disappointment of the World Cup, but then to lose at home in that way…the way they lost the game and the performance, yeah I think everyone was a bit deflated after it,” Dougall explains.

“Again, the Scotland game we saw improvements but sort of winning it close enough at the end, it left people feeling that little bit of disappointment. It’s a bit flat.

“But what you’ve got to remember as well, it’s been a long season for a lot of those players. We played Toulouse in the Top 14 final and then they’re pretty much straight into prep for the World Cup and then they had the World Cup and that finished the way it did.

“So, maybe there’s a little bit of fatigue. Hopefully we’ll see France back to where they were and more exciting.”

Despite occasional lapses in defence and game management, Dougall remains optimistic about France's potential.

“It’s hard to put your finger on what has gone wrong for France,” he says. “Defensively uncharacteristic errors which weren’t happening during or before the World Cup, again that could be down to fatigue.

“Game management as well in certain areas in games has let them down a bit. They’ve got such quality in France at the moment, but it just might take a bit of time for them to find that confidence again.

“One of the most impressive things about Ireland is that they did bounce back and got straight back into it. Whatever they have done around that to make that switch, going from the World Cup and straight into the Six Nations, it’s obviously worked.

“I think the Top 14 season finishing that bit later [June 17th] and a lot of the Irish players didn’t have that, so I don’t know if that’s played a part in it in terms of fatigue.

“Maybe it was just a slow start for France and they’ll hit the ground running again on Sunday. We’ll see.”

In the background of the Six Nations, the Top 14 season has continued, with La Rochelle currently eighth in the table but only five points behind third-placed Bordeaux-Begles.

Dougall has been with the club for almost three years and explained the allure of French rugby and the unique qualities of the Top 14.

“From a rugby perspective, Top 14 is the best league in the world in terms of every week is a big game and there’s high pressure, high intensity and that just doesn’t let up.

“You look at the support as well that teams get here in French rugby in a lot of areas of France. It's huge. There’s that side of it as well which equals a bit of stability for the clubs. They’re financially very stable here I think. 

“As well as this, it offers something different for a rugby player. When else in your life will you get to experience a new culture and learn a new language? There are a number of reasons why players [like Jack Nowell, Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes etc] are moving to France and a lot of positives as well.

“I think the philosophy around the game has also changed [since Dougall moved to France to play for Pau and Valence before going into coaching].

“I still have that appreciation for the game, but I do enjoy and understand there are other ways of playing the game.

“So, the importance of continuity in attack as well as forward play and how big of an emphasis France put on up front, scrum, line-out and maul, I’d like to think it’s given me maybe a different experience and broadened my view on the game a little bit.”

And helping with his development as a coach is undoubtedly Ronan O’Gara, with Dougall praising the innovative rugby philosophy of the La Rochelle head coach whilst also explaining why his exceptional leadership skills have fostered a vibrant team culture at the club.

“It’s quite well documented that he has quite an exciting rugby philosophy and he’s got a fantastic rugby brain so he sort of brings his philosophy to the club at the same time as being head coach.

“His leadership qualities and the way he gets everyone on board and brings everyone along with him in terms of buying into his philosophy, he’s fantastic at it. The environment he’s created here for the staff, it’s open-minded and it’s a really good culture for the players. Everyone is comfortable with each other and everyone is comfortable sharing their points of view.”

Since arriving at La Rochelle in 2019, O’Gara has guided the club to two Top 14 finals but also to back-to-back Champions Cup titles.

Dougall revealed La Rochelle have an unwavering ambition to lift silverware and with plenty still to play for domestically as well as in the Champions Cup [away to Stormers in the Round of 16 at the start of April], the contact skills coach is confident his team can rise to the challenge again.

“Our aim every year now is to win and that’s the stature of the club now. We’re expected to be competing and doing that year on year and that hasn’t changed.

“You know Ronan O'Gara, the head coach and leader, he drives that mindset for us. We need to perform week in and week out to get those big opportunities at the end of the season.

“Stormers away next [in Europe], we’ve been there before this season and lost in the way we did [a last-minute 21-20 defeat], so it’s a great opportunity for us to go back to South Africa and have another go. It’s an exciting opportunity for us.”


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