Saturday 18 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Eddie O'Sullivan has become the ghost hidden in plain sight as Connacht look for Lam's successor

Eddie O’Sullivan remains one of Ireland’s most successful rugby coaches yet he has been repeatedly passed over for jobs on the domestic scenehated. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Eddie O’Sullivan remains one of Ireland’s most successful rugby coaches yet he has been repeatedly passed over for jobs on the domestic scenehated. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

You forget how miserable a city Edinburgh used be for Irish rugby, don't you?

How our history there became a kind of dark kinetic comedy, just this relentless jumble of incoherent fury and random mishap. We struggled with any acceptance that Scotland might ever really be better than us although they almost always won. After Mick Doyle's 'Give-it-a-lash' triumph in 1985, Ireland lost on their next eight trips to Murrayfield and by an average of 14 points.

Through that period, Scotland were no world-beaters, but they won 13 and drew one of their 16 Championship games against Ireland.

The night of a 10-32 hammering in the delayed Six Nations game of '01, Warren Gatland famously became involved in a verbal altercation at the hotel bar with some IRFU committee men who, presumably, had grown weary of having the same post-game conversation with their Scottish counterparts.

As Brendan Fanning recalls in 'From There To Here - Irish rugby in the professional era', "It rivalled any of the awful days Ireland had endured in Murrayfield. Mostly it reflected the inconsistency that plagued the Ireland team. Win a couple, lose a few, what had changed? To senior members in the IRFU, it supported their view that Gatland was hit or miss."

Of course, they couldn't have known then how Ireland's relationship with the Scots was about to be flipped on its head.

In 15 Championship meetings since, Scotland have won just two. Gatland's successor, Eddie O'Sullivan, had a 100 per cent Six Nations record against them over seven seasons with an average winning margin of almost 17 points.

And, perhaps, the crucible moment of change arrived when Ireland went to Edinburgh in 2003.

O'Sullivan recalls in his autobiography how, with the team based in The Balmoral at the bottom of Princes Street, he actively encouraged them to go out and walk the city. No Irish team had won there for 18 years and he believed that that record had become a psychological millstone for our players.

Murrayfield, he reckoned, was "a kind of spiritual Alcatraz. We hated the place." In his team-talk before the game, O'Sullivan challenged his men to name a single Scottish player that Ireland should, logically, fear. "Ye can't because you know something?" he said. "THERE ISN'T ONE!"

Yet the key to his promotion from assistant coach was a view among the committee men (and some players) that his management style referenced much greater attention to detail than Gatland's. And that weekend in Edinburgh 14 years ago pretty much italicised what they had in mind.

O'Sullivan believed the Scots had managed to successfully scout Ireland's set-plays for that game in '01, given the ease with which they seemed to read Irish intentions all day. Two years earlier, Donal Lenihan had discovered two Scottish Development Officers, wearing workmen's overalls over their tracksuits, watching an Irish training session from a nearby prefab.

So in '03, O'Sullivan and forwards coach, Niall O'Donovan, decided to set a trap.

Deliberately

Scotland's lineout was, arguably, the best part of their game at the time and the Irish management deliberately left a set of old lineout calls on a dustbin in the gym they were using (most pitches around Edinburgh were frozen solid). Returning for another session the following morning, they asked the caretaker if - perhaps - he'd picked up a few sheets of paper.

And the answer received was precisely the one they expected.

The following day, Ireland did not lose a single lineout. As O'Sullivan remembered: "They (Scotland) were like the Keystone Cops, trying to defend against our throws, myself and Niallo chuckling in the stand.

"In time, they became so confused they effectively stopped contesting our throw." Ireland won the game 36-6.

Only an England team destined to be crowned world champions that autumn would deny O'Sullivan's team that year's Grand Slam but, on his watch, Ireland did win three Triple Crowns in the next four seasons. Over the previous 103 years, the country's tally had been six.

The wheels came off, of course, at the 2007 World Cup and O'Sullivan stepped down after the following season's Six Nations, his replacement - Declan Kidney - guiding Ireland to the '09 Grand Slam.

Pointedly, Brian O'Driscoll was among those who suggested afterwards that O'Sullivan's seven years of work had been a foundation stone for that triumph.

"For me, that Grand Slam was ten years of work" he said at the time. "Not one. No way. All the disappointments, all the near misses... we should have had a Grand Slam under Eddie. There's no question about that. He did fantastically for Ireland."

You might guess the direction we're headed here and, frankly, this column cannot reasonably declare neutrality on the issue of O'Sullivan's continued exclusion from Irish rugby, given our collaboration with the Corkman on his autobiography in '09.

But in the week that Nigel Carolan definitively ruled himself out of becoming Connacht coach, the absence of O'Sullivan's name from any debate on the likely successor to Pat Lam surely merited some kind of exploration.

Since leaving the Irish post, O'Sullivan coached the US Eagles at the 2011 World Cup and, more recently, spent a season in the dysfunctional environment of Biarritz Olympique in Pro D2, the French second division.

Prior to going to the Basque Country, he had been in discussion with Munster about the position of backs coach, but those discussions seemed to drag interminably, as if his credentials needed some kind of intense forensic study.

O'Sullivan previously applied for the Connacht job (a position he held in the mid-'90s, recording a famous victory against Fiji just as the game was turning professional) but, remarkably, was not even granted an interview in the process that ended with Lam's appointment.

Last December, on the day Lam revealed his intention to join Bristol at the end of this season, Connacht CEO Willie Ruane said the following when asked on Newstalk's 'Off the Ball' about the possibility of appointing an indigenous Irish coach as replacement.

"It would be great if we can get a coach who plays a very ambitious, attractive style of rugby, winning rugby, and at the same time he's Irish. But you may not be able to tick all those boxes in the one go."

Later in the programme, O'Sullivan was one of the guests invited on to discuss Lam's looming departure and the potential succession stakes.

Eddie mentioned Carolan and Jimmy Duffy, "two good young coaches coming through". At which point interviewer, Joe Molloy, quite naturally, brought up the rather large elephant in the corner. He asked O'Sullivan had he himself "given up even attempting to get back into Irish rugby".

Sobering

Eddie's response was a rather sobering: "I've never given up on Irish rugby, maybe it's given up on me!"

His isolation is especially startling given consistent assurances from people at the highest level of the Union that there has been no expressed resistance to his re-integration into the Irish rugby coaching structure.

O'Sullivan, remember, was previously a candidate to be Lions head coach and, during his seven years in the Six Nations, Ireland averaged almost three tries per game.

So an "ambitious, attractive style of rugby, winning rugby, and at the same time he's Irish"?

Eddie O'Sullivan, incidentally, lives in Moylough, roughly 25 miles from Galway city centre.

Maybe nobody cares or maybe, at 58, the view of those who matter is simply that his race as a coach is run. Only Guy Noves (62) of the current Six Nations coaches is older, but the age profile of the others - Eddie Jones (56), Vern Cotter (54), Gatland (53), Conor O'Shea (46) - scarcely makes O'Sullivan prehistoric.

No matter, he seems to have become a ghost to the game here. World-class, yet hidden in plain sight. Incredible.

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