Saturday 21 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: Connacht must learn from mistakes to avoid freefall

Keane appointment looked good on paper but the Kiwi struggled with key elements of head coach's duties

Connacht head coach Kieran Keane. Photo: Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Kieran Keane. Photo: Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

At the start of the season, when covering a Connacht game, as common courtesy I made a beeline for Kieran Keane - to introduce myself, welcome him to Irish rugby and wish him well for the season.

This was the guy that Connacht CEO Willie Ruane had hailed as the "perfect fit", a man whose teams traditionally played with the off-the-cuff invention and expansiveness that has become the norm in the west of Ireland since the arrival of Pat Lam.

I introduced myself to the 64-year-old Kiwi who has been working around people - players, administrators, media and supporters - for years and yet the best he could muster in reply was a stone-faced grunt. Maybe he was having a bad day, but it was certainly a striking moment.

It was obvious to me at that point that Keane's social skills, or apparent lack of them, would possibly rub people up the wrong way.

There was great surprise earlier this week when it was announced that his contract was being terminated with two years left to run, but I can't say the news caught me off guard having witnessed the bristly atmosphere at the Sportsground this season.

Not having the benefit of a pre-season with the squad was far from ideal, and entirely out of his hands.

Such circumstances would usually earn an under-pressure head coach some more time after a campaign littered with disappointing results.

However, when the boss of any team finds it difficult to get his players on the same wavelength, it can be challenging, and certainly from Kieran Keane's point of view not embracing the idea of connecting the province by visiting clubs and schools, and publicly questioning the courage of his players, he was essentially shovelling sand through his own hourglass.

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Perhaps Keane (right) isn't suited to the role of a head coach, some are much happier working on the training pitch, where he has a reputation for having great ideas, but struggle with the other duties - such as engaging with the media.

Graham Simmons is a quirky character, not an antagonist. Sky Sports viewers are well accustomed to his post-match questioning style. It's his point of difference. Perhaps Keane wasn't briefed on this before he straight-batted, with real pith, two minutes of questions after Connacht's Round 4 home loss to Cardiff, but it certainly didn't look good.

Remember, Keane had been in Galway just over a month at that stage and Connacht fans were still trying to size up the man their beloved province had appointed to replace the affable Lam.

Delivering such a frosty interview, whether he felt antagonised or not, was unprofessional and also damaging to his reputation.

Much like when Martin O'Neill throws verbal jabs at Tony O'Donoghue, he seemed to forget that this post-match tradition is an opportunity to communicate with the supporters his team rely on, it's not a free shot in a joust with a journalist.

Keane had blinkers on in that spiky post-match exchange, he couldn't see the bigger picture - which goes against his entire coaching ethos.

"What I like to emphasise is playing with your eyes up," Keane wrote in a column for three years ago.

"If you do that, then you're scanning the game, watching and planning. And if you're doing that, then you're preparing to make good decisions."

Keane has ruffled a number of feathers in media interviews this season but perhaps his most damning delivery of all was when he questioned the bravery of his players, the same group who had just claimed a fourth successive victory - two in the Challenge Cup and two in the PRO14 - with a 23-15 success against the Cheetahs.

"We have a great defence coach (Peter Wilkins) who works tirelessly, and I really feel for him the effort he has put in. It's brought about a bit of a change, but courage? You can't coach courage and stuff like that so it's difficult for him."

It's a coach's job to point out where his players are going wrong, and you expect them to lose their cool when performances aren't up to scratch. But to publicly question the courage of his team? That's straight off page one of 'How to lose your dressing-room'.

Interestingly, that Sportsground success against the Cheetahs was the one and only time this season that Connacht secured back-to-back PRO14 wins, and they went on to lose nine of their next 12 games in the competition.

It was obvious last weekend that the western province raised their game for a personal cause; the opportunity to honour John Muldoon in his final Connacht outing brought their performance to a level that Keane couldn't get them to all season.

They were playing for their captain last week, not their coach.

It seems Keane was taken aback by the termination of his contract - and most people in this situation will at least get two years - his comments after their Leinster win indicated he expected to be in the hot seat when the 2018/'19 campaign kicks off in three months' time - he was already planning a "robust review".

Connacht need to learn from this episode and avoid making the same mistake again.

For starters, they must ensure their next head coach is able to take over before pre-season begins.

I would love to see Connacht appoint a head coach from within the Irish system; however they mustn't rule out another international appointment just because Kieran Keane didn't work out. They simply need to find the best candidate for the job, the best fit to get the province moving forward again.

Connacht's PRO12 win two years ago completely changed expectations and standards out west - it's incredibly important they aren't allowed to slip back towards the doldrums.

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