Sport Connacht Rugby

Monday 24 April 2017

Keane edge echoes Lam's rags to riches story - Everything you need to know about the new Connacht coach

Connacht unearth forceful personality who will leave no stone unturned in quest for glory

Kieran Keane has thrived in adversity throughout his coaching career Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Kieran Keane has thrived in adversity throughout his coaching career Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

The story goes that when Kieran Keane was at Marlborough Boys' College, he once sent one of his less intelligent charges into the car park on a curious mission.

"Get out there mate and count the stones," said the then cigarette-puffing teacher.

The student returned, unbowed, deferring to his teacher, some time later, having retrieved what he might have surmised was an appropriate answer.

Suitably unimpressed, the master, having received the enthusiastic response, responded with a rather less than enthusiastic response of his own.

"You're wrong, mate," said Keane. "Try again."

Clearly, this is a man who leaves nothing to chance.

"I've coached battlers all my life." He will now continue to do so.

After Connacht and Pat Lam proved unable to accommodate an extension of their remarkable partnership, the obvious step for the province was to try to secure someone carved as close to Lam's image as humanly possible.

In securing the signing of 63-year-old Waikato Chiefs assistant Keane, the Westerners have, aside from the age gap, come as close as makes little difference to achieving just that.

For, although Keane's name will be largely unfamiliar to devotees of the oval ball game in his new jurisdictions from Ballyhaunis to Ballymote, or Ballinasloe to Ballinamore, his credentials are remarkably similar to those of the man he will soon supplant.

Keane's history has thrived in adversity such as that perennially faced by Connacht, notwithstanding their remarkable ascension to title glory last season under Lam's talismanic guidance. He has a history of husbanding teams weighed down by economic adversity, developing a unique, enterprising playing style with unheralded squads, all the while doggedly and devotedly pursuing his ambitions with a healthy disregard for niggling, interfering officialdom.

It will not only be the apparent presence of distant Irish bloodlines that might make him suited to the new task in hand.

"They do this, we do that," begins his mantra, his design for life. "So we do that."

An enigmatic epigram, perhaps, but at once indicative of the well from which he draws his motivation.

Ball-playing

Keane, a ball-playing out-half-cum-centre, coached the New Zealand U-16s and U-17s for seven years as well as the Marlborough and Hawkes Bay NPC sides.

He played six times for the All Blacks in 1979, represented Canterbury for nigh on a decade and played for New Zealand Universities.

His time at the helm of the newly-formed Tasman Union, which he joined in 2009, brought him to prominence and created the parallels that so attracted him to Connacht's interview board.

Tasman finished ninth in an amalgamated NPC in his first year, 12th in his second and slumped to bottom of the championship in 2011, mired in financial trouble and in conflict with the Union.

"Nobody likes to go out a failure so we hung in like a poor relation," he says of a rags to riches story that has rich and deep similarities to Connacht's fairytale rise from the ashes of near extinction in the early part of this century to lifting a Pro12 title in May.

"We were basically a bit brassed off with how things unfolded so we went to the Union and formulated a plan, once they had given us the green light to stay. It became quite personal.

"So instead of dealing with a certain profile of player and putting up with some nonsense, we brought out a few sledgehammers. Basically culled a few people and rebuilt the team.

"We cracked the whip a bit, made some hard decisions, rolled our sleeves up. We got a game that suited the clientèle, that they wanted to play.

"Although we weren't that good at that stage it was quite exciting, an interesting hybrid to what most people were playing.

"We persevered with that, added to it, and got some buy-in from the boys, who seemed to enjoy themselves. It also promoted them a lot better, so they were interested.

"We had to get rid of the 'entertainers' tag. We were brave attackers, gutless defenders. That's how it started."

A year later, Tasman reached the semi-finals, then a final and promotion, then third in the top tier.

Just as Lam needed to eradicate Connacht's age-old perception of hanging with an béal bocht, so too did Keane drive a new motivation for his outfit.

"We drove a culture that was inclusive, with everybody involved and little or no hierarchy. Everybody was treated the same, certainly from my perspective," he says.

"We cared a hell of a lot about our players, especially the young ones because they brought energy, and we cared a lot about them being successful.

Bus

"We gave the younger players a chance to succeed, by bringing them in when they were ready, not throwing them under a bus.

"With their success we were able to build depth in the group. There were some gambles amongst it, and some failures, but not many."

Keane's success sparked interest further up the coaching ladder; firstly with Jamie Joseph at the Highlanders before his most recent stint at Waikato under the equally highly-regarded Dave Rennie, soon to become Glasgow coach.

Auckland Blues - where Lam was once head coach before his dismissal brought him north to Connacht - were at one time believed to be interested in hiring him too.

Swap the 'Tasman Hill' for the Shannon, and you get a sense of the man and coach Connacht have unveiled.

Someone who will leave no stone unturned to achieve even more success with the Westerners.

Irish Independent

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