The short trip to Eddie O'Sullivan's door would have saved a lot of trouble, says Brendan Fanning
At the end of the last week of September last year Connacht issued a press release urging us to go west along the road for some important news. With a week's notice, there was plenty of time to see what was going on.
There is an energy and vitality about Connacht this season, so it figured that maybe they had nailed down another sponsor. No, not that. Bigger again, we were told. Okay, a big-name signing then? A lot of trees were shaken in Galway and still no player's name fell out. On the eve of the big announcement we discovered that in fact Eric Elwood, favourite son of Connacht, would be moving on at the end of the season.
It was a big story nationally and a huge one in Connacht. It was accepted quickly that Elwood was reversing rather then being shunted off the track, so next the focus shifted to who would fill the gap. In all, there would be close on 40 applications.
"The pedigree and quality of the applicants is testament to the progress the club has made over the last number of years," the Connacht CEO Tom Sears said as the paper piled up on his desk. "We have some exceptional coaches with excellent track records to select from and we are more confident than ever that we will be able to recruit the right person to take Connacht to even greater heights."
Currently, they are revising that vision downwards.
It was reported yesterday morning that Pat Lam is now the favourite to get the job, and that the interview panel were taken by his "varied coaching career". Mostly, they were glad that he hadn't pulled out. That's what Sean Holley did last week, followed quickly by the next man offered the job, Alex King. You have to wonder why they were offered the job in the first place if it was not explicit that they wanted it, and were prepared to make whatever adjustments necessary to take it up.
This is not the first time Lam has been in the frame in Ireland. He went close to nailing the Ulster job last year when Brian McLaughlin was being moved sideways, but a huge plus for Mark Anscombe – whose son coincidentally was coached by Lam at Auckland – was that he was prepared to work with the staff already on site.
Lam, on the other hand, wanted to bring some of his own men with him, which is standard practice in the game. Clearly it drives the cost up, however, and may drive out indigenous talent. If, for example, Lam wants to bring a forwards coach with him to Connacht, what happens to Dan McFarland, who does an excellent job with the pack there, and after 12 years on site as player and assistant coach has an acute understanding of what the job requires?
Accountants like anything that saves money, so it will be interesting to see what package Lam demands, for he knows Connacht are now tumbling down the list of applicants. In one way they can't afford another rejection. In another it might be the only thing they can afford.
It is possible that at the start of the process Connacht had a very clear idea of exactly what kind of coach they wanted. For example, when Leinster were going down the same route three years ago with Michael Cheika's long goodbye, they canvassed senior players on what they needed to move forward. The photofit produced an image of someone driven and technical, and his profile wasn't an issue. Isa Nacewa pointed at the sketch and proclaimed it to be Joe Schmidt, who he had worked with in Auckland.
So Leinster did some research on Schmidt; liked what they came up with; approached him; signed him; and then waited for him to finish his contract with Clermont. The announcement was made only when the deal was done. The process had been a private one.
Connacht opted to go down main street. They effectively ran a banner from one side of Eyre Square to the other, inviting one and all to get their CVs into the Sportsground by December 1. The more the merrier. As an exercise in generating publicity it was successful, but it meant that any casualties would have to be dealt with in full view. Or rather, you could try and throw a tarpaulin over the wreck, but that wouldn't stop people lifting the edges to have a look.
The most obvious casualty in this has been Eddie O'Sullivan. Along with former Wallabies coach John Connolly, and Mike Ruddock, he made up the most experienced and successful trio in the mix. None of the three was interviewed. Two of the three were on the island.
Ruddock, who led Wales to a Grand Slam in 2005, has spent as much of his coaching career in Ireland as his native Wales. Last season he combined coaching Lansdowne in the AIL with the Ireland under 20 squad. After a successful World Cup with the under 20s he waited to see what would happen this season, and, while he was waiting, lobbed his CV into Connacht. When the union came back and extended the under 20 contract, the Connacht job fell off his radar, and he off theirs.
It was a different story with O'Sullivan, however. No sooner had we broken the story about Elwood but O'Sullivan's name was bouncing around. It was a source of surprise to many of us how O'Sullivan could remain unemployed since signing off with the US Eagles at the 2011 World Cup. In the way that Nacewa was a powerful voice in Schmidt's favour at Leinster, however, the opposite might have played against O'Sullivan in some of the jobs that came and went in the past 13 months.
Connacht wasn't a blank canvas either. O'Sullivan had coached them at the slow dawn of the professional game in Ireland, and his leave-taking saw him cross swords with then manager Billy Glynn, who replaced him with Warren Gatland after negotiations with O'Sullivan had stalled. Glynn is now president of the IRFU. In late October he was asked for his opinion on who should get the Connacht job.
"I think I'd like to see Connacht recruit a home-grown coach," he said. "We see now that our home-grown coaches are emigrating. We have a number of them in England, and that's not good for the game in Ireland. We have to see that there is a place for them in Ireland, and this is an opportunity to do that. There are lots of good coaches out there."
As the best qualified home-grown coach by a country mile, this was Glynn saying he had no problem with O'Sullivan. And nor should he. It is not clear that everyone in the IRFU feels the same way. Last week a senior union source claimed that O'Sullivan burned his bridges with the IRFU by taking such a big sack of cash with him in his exit from the Ireland job in 2008.
For the sake of Irish rugby we hope this source is wide of the mark. O'Sullivan's credo was always: you are what you negotiate. So he negotiated. If there was a contract in place then whatever O'Sullivan left with that day was in the terms of the contract. End of story. If there is lingering enmity, enough to block his path to a job in this country, it is utterly at odds with the union's current transition from an amateur committee-centric organisation to one where the professionals actually call the shots, as outlined in Plan Ireland, to be unveiled in the next few weeks.
Still, it is unexplainable how he was not interviewed. On the advice of his agent, John Baker, who had already touched base with Sears as a matter of course, O'Sullivan contacted the Connacht CEO in October to set up a meeting. They sat down in the foyer of the Carlton Hotel, the Connacht team hotel, where they spent a productive hour talking about a range of issues. Sears gave no undertakings about a subsequent interview, but O'Sullivan left thinking that surely it would follow. Why would it not?
Then, on December 11, journalist John Fallon ran a story saying that O'Sullivan would not be getting even that much. Baker texted Sears to ask what was going on, and received a reply to the effect that the process was ongoing. On December 18, Sears rang Baker to confirm what the journalist had written.
The following day, O'Sullivan emailed Sears to express his disappointment about having got the bad news through the media. Sears responded to say that he 'shouldn't believe everything you read in the press' – an odd bit of advice given the story was on the money – and that the decision not to interview O'Sullivan had in fact only been made the previous day, at a meeting in Lansdowne Road between Connacht and IRFU representatives.
Connacht maintain that their decision was an independent one, that they excluded a man with three Triple Crowns to his name, and enough experience of trading on modest resources – through his two stints with the US – to acquaint him with the challenges in the west, because it was what they thought best. Moreover, Sears disagrees that the public process was a cul de sac from which they are now struggling to reverse.
"No, not at all," he says. "You have to have an open process, you have to advertise to see who's interested. You have to be open to various options. The response we got was outstanding, some very strong candidates from all over the world. And I don't think if you go down the route of selecting the people you want to interview that you're giving the job the respect that it merits because we've had applications from people we wouldn't have thought would have applied, and that's been beneficial to the process, and it has been completely open."
It is hard to see how the process has been enhanced by the involvement of people they didn't think would apply. Sears infers from these applications that Connacht's status is enhanced? It isn't. Rather the opposite is the case.
They should have researched and targeted and approached. And it should have taken them all the way to their own doorstep where they had a man who understands what Connacht are about, has the drive and technical know-how to make a positive impact, and who would have provided the IRFU with a local marker on a landscape that, at provincial level, is about to become exclusively Kiwi.
This wasn't what was envisaged when the decision was made to take the long road to replacing Eric Elwood. The quiet, 20-minute spin out to Moylough would have served them so much better.