Scapegoat Eddie on a hiding to nothing as Biarritz descend into crisis
On the opening day of the ProD2 season in France last month, Eddie O'Sullivan went to work with a pauper's tools.
The Biarritz Olympique bench carried five front-row forwards, leaving Jeremy Davidson, coach of their opponents, Aurillac, bemused. He noted that O'Sullivan had no cover for second-row or back-row and that he was fielding an academy player at No 10.
Aurillac were, in other words, facing a diminished ghost of the old Basque giants. They duly won by three points.
During O'Sullivan's first season as head coach, Biarritz lost out on a place in the promotion play-offs only on points difference.
But their summer proved chaotic and destructive. A proposed merger with neighbours Bayonne was voted down at a club EGM yet, in anticipation of that merger, nine members of O'Sullivan's playing staff had already been told that they could leave.
Ostensibly, the Biarritz playing budget overshadows that of many ProD2 opponents, but a significant wedge of it gets siphoned into part-payment of extravagant salaries for players no longer at the club.
They shed nine professionals from their squad in the off-season, bringing in just three replacements. Hence, O'Sullivan was left to improvise with academy recruits in their first three league games this season, all of which were lost.
The third of those games, a 20-9 home defeat to Albi last Friday triggered a furious dressing-room outburst from new president Nicolas Brusque.
And it was Brusque (39) who, reputedly, phoned O'Sullivan on Wednesday night, telling him to stay off the bus for last night's game against bottom-of-the-table Pays D'Aix.
This was seen as a move to appease supporters disgruntled by the club's poor start to the season and, perhaps, an attempt to create an impression of the coach losing his dressing-room. But there is no evidence of friction between O'Sullivan and his players.
Bernard Jackman believes the move to isolate his former Irish boss is an attempt to scapegoat him for a club in crisis.
"I am 100pc sure that Eddie hasn't lost the dressing-room" said Jackman, head coach with Top 14 club Grenoble, yesterday. "Last year's captain at Biarritz signed for us over the off-season and he speaks very highly of Eddie. He's in shock this morning at what's happened.
"It's not how people in Ireland, England or most other countries would do their business. But Biarritz is a next-to-impossible environment to work in. There's just been a history of coaches getting sacked, year on year.
"The feedback about Eddie from the players is very, very positive. The level of expertise is beyond anything that they've had before. The issue is that he hasn't got the resources.
"They have massive financial difficulties - they just about got enough money together to get their licence for this season and they haven't been able to replace guys at all."
There have been, it is true, recent reports in French media of dressing-room discontent with Biarritz backs coach, Pierre Chadebech, one of two assistants imposed upon O'Sullivan by former president, and club legend, Serge Blanco.
That failed merger attempt triggered Blanco's resignation, the former French full-back furious at the lack of support for a move many believe may be the only way to sustain professional rugby in the area.
While Biarritz contested the2006 and 2010 Heineken Cup finals, they have fallen badly off the pace in France, with ProD2 attendances rarely in excess of 3,000. Bayonne, meanwhile, routinely attract three times that figure.
At the start of last season, Biarritz signed 15 new players, with O'Sullivan directly involved in the recruitment of the last three. Yet, for much of the campaign, his first-choice out-half and full-back were sidelined through injury.
This season's squad has been trimmed to just 26 players, two of whom are on World Cup duty, with another five currently injured. O'Sullivan's options at out-half are restricted to two academy players, one just 18.
"I think Eddie did a good job last year to get them even near the play-offs given the disruption that was there" said Jackman. "He's just on a hiding to nothing. We've got three ex-Biarritz players here at Grenoble, they know what's going on there. He's been horrendously badly treated."
Biarritz's next game, incidentally, is not until October 16, home to Lyon. And their three-time Triple Crown-winning Irish coach still has more than a year on his contract to run.
There has been no suggestion that he intends to leave.