Thursday 25 April 2019

Analysis: O’Sullivan looks the perfect fit to lead young, homegrown coaching ticket at the Sportsground

Eddie O'Sullivan. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Eddie O'Sullivan. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Is there a local solution to Connacht's problem? Could an indigenous ticket, supported by an experienced ex-international coach like Eddie O'Sullivan help the western province get back on track?

Having gone overseas with their last two appointments, the province's coach Willie Ruane will pause before doing so again.

Pat Lam was a spectacular success, but nothing spectacular happened on Kieran Keane's watch and that's why he is heading for the exit door once the over-worked IRFU HR department get their Is dotted and Ts crossed.

The track record of overseas coaches at the top end of Irish rugby is mixed.

For every Joe Schmidt, there is a Mark Anscombe. For every Lam, a Keane.

Lam sold the province a vision and they bought in hook, line and sinker to be taken on the ride of their lives.

Keane wasn't selling anything to anybody and his year in charge will be quickly forgotten by most except the players who fell foul of his strange style of man-management.

Having helped sort a solution to Ulster's coaching conundrum, IRFU performance director David Nucifora must now look at the western equation.

In 2016 he hailed the calibre of coaches working in Ireland's provinces and as part of the national set-up and, two years on, the only one still there was the one man he didn't name-check; Leo Cullen.

Cullen's success shows that an Irish coach can thrive with the right supports in place.

The Leinster structure remains a little baffling to most onlookers, with Stuart Lancaster a hugely powerful on-field coach who is routinely name-checked by all of the players as the maestro behind the scenes.

And yet for all that it leaves those outside the set-up wondering who, ultimately, is the boss; the dynamic between head coach Cullen, who fronts the house, prepares the forwards and makes the final decision on selection and contracting, and senior coach Lancaster, who appears to design the game-plan and has a big role in picking the team, works.

It is not a solution that would fit all circumstances, but it has gotten Leinster to a position where they are on for a Champions Cup/PRO14 double.

Connacht have good coaches in their system, the most obvious example is Nigel Carolan who is well-respected within Irish rugby for his work with the province's academy and the national U-20 side.

Like Cullen and Anthony Foley before him, he is inexperienced but perhaps the support of a figure like O'Sullivan or even Eric Elwood would ease the transition.

Certainly, there would need to be bridges crossed before the former Ireland coach could be offered the job but perhaps it is time to park old grudges and get him involved again.

Location alone should not be the only reason for Connacht to reach out to the international-calibre coach residing on their doorstep.

Anyone who listens to O'Sullivan's analysis can hear his knowledge of the game and while his tenure with the national team came to an unhappy end more than a decade ago, he must have learnt an awful lot from the experience.

Certainly, he would be a strong advocate for the province in the corridors of power where negotiating and working with the union is a key part of the job.

Perhaps his constructive criticism of Schmidt on the national airwaves would count against him, but again that should be forgiven and forgotten for the sake of Connacht's progress.

In Carolan and forwards coach Jimmy Duffy, the province have home-grown, respected operators who have worked under Lam and Keane and look ready to take on more responsibility.

When appointing Keane, Ruane boasted that the recruit was a "perfect fit" at the end of a worldwide search, he is now left coming to a settlement arrangement.

If a world-class operator presents himself, then it would be remiss of Connacht not to consider it but the coaching world is a small one and May is not a great time to go to the market.

Provinces and the union have been reluctant to appoint locals in recent years, but there are a host of Irish coaches thriving abroad.

Ronan O'Gara is making waves in New Zealand, Geordan Murphy came close to getting the Cardiff Blues job and appears to want to take the next step, Mike Prendergast is doing well at Oyonnax and Jeremy Davidson is about to take over at Brive.

Within the Irish system there may be a desire to reward the likes of Richie Murphy, Felix Jones or Girvan Dempsey, while former Ulster coaches Neil Doak and Jonny Bell are working in England.

Former Connacht coach Bernard Jackman is in Wales, although he may want to prove his worth at the Dragons before turning his head homewards.

Irish options abound and, while the last two seasons have been a struggle, Connacht remains an exciting proposition despite the poor facilities at the Sportsground relative to the other provinces.

Yet perhaps the best solution is a local one. Carolan and Duffy know the ropes and, if there are concerns about promoting from within because of a lack of experience, then a solution can be found.

And that solution could be the vastly-experienced former Ireland coach living in Galway, waiting for a call.

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