Wednesday 20 September 2017

'I missed out on jobs at home but I'm not bitter'

Ex-Ireland coach O'Sullivan relishing challenge of Biarritz role after long spell in wilderness

Eddie O'Sullivan will coach in France next season. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Eddie O'Sullivan will coach in France next season. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

In the end, when his professional career had been reduced as if in slow motion, it all happened for Eddie O'Sullivan in a whirlwind. After high-profile rejections from his homeland, where he remains mysteriously persona non grata in some quarters despite his record with the national team, a little over three weeks ago he took a call from an unknown French mobile.

That weekend, Serge Blanco, one time the finest full-back in the world and now the main man at Biarritz, met him in London on the margins of an ERC meeting.

Blanco freighted an opportunity of undeniable difficulty but also one that presented an irrefutable challenge; to transform the fortunes of one of club rugby's grandest institutions, albeit one that had slipped from its former pre-eminence.

In the parlance of our age, it was an offer too good to refuse.

O'Sullivan (55), will be charged with bringing his vast expertise to the radical overhauling of the structure and organisation of the relegated French giants, with the aim of restoring the former champions to their former status as a giant of the game.

It's a tall order but the Moylough man is ready and willing for the opportunity. He was ready and willing for any opportunity, mind. It just took a while for someone to knock on his door.

He visited the club last weekend, met the indigenous coaches with whom he will work, conceived with Blanco their mutual vision for the club and, briskly, was asked upon leaving would he take the job. By Wednesday evening, the gig was his.

ICONIC

"It's a great opportunity because it's an iconic club who have been through a bad time admittedly," O'Sullivan says. "It's a chance for me to go in and turn things around and I've been given the imprimatur to do what I think needs to be done to fix it.

"There weren't that many other jobs out there to be fair, I've been struggling to get a job for the last few years. It's been a tough time, waiting around and being close to a few jobs that didn't come off, but that's the way the business works. You have to hang in there. Biarritz is a great break for me, absolutely."

Munster and Connacht, it is well known, refused to break bread with him before when they had vacancies – albeit he engaged with Munster about the current backs coach position in recent weeks.

Being shunned in his homeland was a jarring experience – he even coached against Ireland, with the USA, at the last World Cup – but it is one that he refuses to let sour him.

"There's no point in being bitter," he says. "I'm disappointed, obviously I would have loved to have got a job back in Ireland. I was away in America but I wanted to stay in this part of the world.

"There aren't a ton of jobs out there, it's a small market in Europe. I would have liked to have stayed in Ireland but it just didn't work out. I'm not bitter, just disappointed.

"I was disappointed I didn't get an interview with Connacht, I said that at the time and it caused a storm. But I'd reason to be disappointed. Other than that I've moved on.

"You can't dwell on decisions other people make, whether I was offered a job or not was not my call. I just move on to the next opportunity, even though there aren't an awful lot of them."

Some people within Irish rugby, despite being obsequious when he was leading Ireland to three Triple Crowns in a transformative time for the sport here, were keener to retain the opinions of O'Sullivan when, ultimately, the ship foundered in 2008.

"You can eat yourself up inside if you go down that road," he says of outside perceptions. "I would love to have been coaching in Ireland, there were a couple of opportunities and I didn't get them.

"But the people who made those decisions, I have to assume, made them because they thought they were the right decisions. Whether they're right or wrong is a debate.

"From my perspective, it's about coaching. I love coaching. People might have different opinions about me as a person, and that's fair enough. Nobody's perfect.

"I've certainly learned a lot in the last few years. I've learned a lot about myself. I'm always learning. But the one thing I've never lost is my passion for coaching. I love being on the field.

"That's why even in America I enjoyed it, I was hands-on there, I'll be hands-on here in Biarritz, as I was in Ireland. I'd love to be in Ireland but this is a second-best choice, on the field close to Ireland with a good club.

"I've moved on. When you don't get jobs, it's other people's decisions. Of course, you're disappointed but you have to give credit to them for making the decision as well based on what they believe, even if you don't agree with it.

"Being upset personally is not a good energy, you shake off the disappointment. It's a knock. But people go through that every day of the week, it just doesn't make the newspapers."

He wasn't just snubbed domestically, however; Edinburgh's interest wasn't prolonged when they were hiring some time back; Kobe in Japan mooted interest then muted it last Christmas.

INTEREST

He spoke with Western Force a couple of years back; last year, he and Tony McGahan met for coffee in Melbourne and shared their interest in the upcoming position at the Rebels.

He didn't hear what newspapers heard about interest from Cardiff ("I wouldn't have held my breath on that one") and the news about Gloucester's interest once Nigel Davies was bounced came too late.

The way he looks at it, things happen for a reason. The laws of attraction have taken him to Biarritz; the club needs what the coach can offer and both parties are hungry and eager to succeed.

"That's the message that I got from Serge," he expands. "They need a different approach, someone from the outside who has a different vision for the club. He spoke about good leadership and structures where they've probably struggled in recent times. He said it was more or less up to me to make whatever changes necessary.

"It's a real roll-your-sleeves-up effort. It's an approach more used to outside of France rather than what they've normally been used to.

"They know they've let things slip. They need someone to take it by the scruff of the neck and that idea appealed to me."

It won't be a cakewalk but O'Sullivan never expected it to be. Promotion is obviously a target but the academy, ranked second in France, needs to promulgate more youth. Sustainability is the key, not a foundation built on sand.

"We could get up in a year but not be ready and come back down again, there's no future in that existence," he says. "If you get the structures right, the long term should take care of itself."

His family will move soon; they were as excited as he by the challenge. He is focused on the future and there will be no regrets or bitterness accompanying his luggage; life is too short.

In any event, there's work to be done. Ask him if he could ever see himself coaching in Ireland again, and the journey he has to get to where he is now informs an answer delivered with a knowing chuckle.

"In this business, you'd be foolish to look beyond a week, never mind a month!"

Irish Independent

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