'I believe there's huge potential here. It's an exciting time'
After more than a decade as academy boss, former Ireland U-20 coach is set for new role
After 13 years in the role, Nigel Carolan will finish up as Connacht Rugby Academy Manager in the coming weeks.
The former Connacht back will be moving to a different office at the Sportsground to take up the position of backs coach with the senior squad.
"You'll always be a bit sentimental and precious about a programme which has been close to your heart for so long," Carolan said this week.
"We started it with very little resources back in 2004 when there was just two of us - myself and strength & conditioning coach Antoine Mobian - running the programme. At that time Antoine, alone, was focused on the whole pathway of players not just the academy. While I was the academy manager, the skills coach, the team manager, the bagman and whatever else was needed.
"I'm very proud to say now that there is a team of ten in place to resource the players coming through. It's become so much more specialised and players are getting access to expertise in a number of different areas. Recently, we've made an investment in the areas of nutrition and personal development as well as more specialised rugby coaches. It's certainly come a long way since we started."
Of course there have been different highlights for Carolan over the years but he points to one day in particular as a special one.
"For me personally, the proudest day I've had was probably the Ireland versus Canada game last November when we had four academy players in the starting team. It just showed that the work we're doing is having a big impact on the Ireland team. We are contributing players that have come through the academy to the national set-up."
Academy graduates Tiernan O'Halloran, Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion and Finlay Bealham all started for Ireland in the Aviva Stadium that day with their Connacht team-mate Niyi Adeolokun making his debut from the bench.
"It's a huge boost every time you see guys move on from the academy to become successful professional rugby players but that was definitely a proud day."
Carolan's own former team-mate and fellow Galway man Eric Elwood is stepping into the academy manager role this summer after two years as domestic rugby manager and previously three seasons as head coach at the province.
"I think Eric will do a fabulous job with the academy. He has a huge amount of experience across all aspects of the organisation. He knows what it takes to be a successful rugby player and the demands of the professional environment. More recently, he's got a huge insight in to the grassroots level and what needs to happen to develop these players before they enter the academy system.
Standards "For him, it's probably about getting his head around how to build a relationship with a young 19-year-old fella who has got a lot going on in his life and is eager to kick on and become a pro. Eric will drive the standards to ensure that every day is an opportunity for the players to grow and develop and to make sure that they don't waste those days."
One player who made the most of his time in the academy was Ballina native Dave Heffernan. This week, the 26-year-old was one of eight uncapped players named in Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad for the summer tour to the USA and Japan. Carolan says his inclusion comes as no surprise to those who know the player.
"Dave has epitomised everything about what it takes to become a professional rugby player in the first instance, never mind an international player. He is a guy who has never accepted 'no'. He is extremely driven, determined and very coachable. It's that drive that has ensured that even in the dark days when he was injured or out of the selection frame, he was so motivated to keep going because he had a dream and vision for himself. I think it's very fitting that he's getting his opportunity now.
"I was so excited when I heard and I texted him straight away. For a guy who has worked so hard to switch from the back-row to the front-row, it's truly deserved. This inclusion has just given him a taste of the recognition but knowing Dave, he certainly won't sit back and think that he's made it now. If he gets a run, it will give him a taste of a new level and he will find out even more about himself and what he needs to work on. I have no doubt he will be even more motivated to kick on."
Carolan will get a short break next month to spend some time with his young family before he is back in the Sportsground preparing for the 2017/'18 season as backs coach.
"I'm really excited to get this opportunity with my home province. While this season didn't live up to the expectations based on what we achieved last year, I believe there is a huge amount of potential here and it's an exciting time for Connacht Rugby."
Carolan, along with coaches Jimmy Duffy and Peter Wilkins, will head up the pre-season programme until Kieran Keane arrives in August and communication remains frequent between the new-look coaching ticket as they prepare for the season.
"I met Kieran when he was over in March and I was very impressed with his whole outlook on the game and his coaching philosophy.
"I've been very impressed with his knowledge and his keenness to make sure we start pre-season really well. We've been in contact with him weekly and we're really enjoying his company as well.
"I think that's really important for a management team. When the coaches love coming in to work, that spreads to the playing group," he added.
"We want them to enjoy coming to training and enjoy working hard so they can hopefully enjoy success as individuals and as a team."