Sport Rugby

Thursday 22 February 2018

Fore runner: Why IRFU need to bring back Eddie

Eddie O'Sullivan learned
his coaching from the
bottom up, unlike Martin
Johnson who badly
lacked experience
Eddie O'Sullivan learned his coaching from the bottom up, unlike Martin Johnson who badly lacked experience
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Some might call it the silly season, others, more accurately, the time for re-assessment and a new direction in terms of job security and advancement for the best of rugby coaches.

Following the World Cup, Graham Henry (New Zealand), Marc Lievremont (France), Peter de Villiers (South Africa), Martin Johnson (England), Nick Mallet (Italy) and Eddie O'Sullivan (USA) are just some of the high-profile coaches moving on.

My views are pretty well established. I believe now is the right time to initiate change. The World Cup has become the show of consequence for test rugby. The Six Nations and newly unveiled extended Tri-Nations (to include Argentina) called (with typical SANZAR modesty) 'The Championship' are now but steps -- albeit important ones -- on the road between World Cups.

Barring exceptional circumstances, a four-year management span is just about right. Players tire of coaches, coaches tire of other coaches and coaches tire of players in terms of the same old, same old, on a constant basis. With the possible exception of Johnson's decision to step down this week, the rest were flagged well in advance.

The former England and Lions lock may not be 'Mr Popularity' in this neck of the woods, but his status in the game cannot be denied.

However, his experience in stepping into the hot seat should serve as a warning to wannabe professional coaches everywhere.

Being a top player, even an outstanding captain and leader in the dressing-room, offers no assurances in terms of coaching ability. I would go so far as to suggest that being a great player -- as Johnson assuredly was -- can actually mitigate against comparable coaching success.

The ability to be an effective coach is like the ability to be an effective player -- innate. One does not, as a matter of course, follow the other. Great players can become great coaches, but only after the appropriate apprenticeship has been served.

It is why the role of Steve Aboud, as national coach development manager, continues to be so vital to the welfare of the game here.

To that end, it is hugely encouraging to see up-and-coming coaches, former pro players and ex internationals like Eric Elwood, Anthony Foley, Mark McCall, Girvan Dempsey, Reggie Corrigan, Mike Prendergast, Eric Miller and Conor O'Shea making their way.

By and large we have been lucky in the quality of southern hemisphere coaches to have come our way. Think Matt Williams, Alan Gaffney, Jim Williams, Tony McGahan, Joe Schmidt, Michael Cheika , John Mitchell, Jono Gibbes, Warren Gatland, Gert Smal, Les Kiss and you get the drift.

That said, it is one area in which we must support and develop our own. Indigenous coaching is essential to the future well-being of our game.

At the time Ciaran Fitzgerald was to take up the coaching reins at Connacht, the national position became available and he was fast-tracked into answering his country's call.

I would have bet my bottom punt at the time that the most complete Irish rugby captain ever would have been to the manor born for the ultimate challenge, but as history now records, he struggled in the head coaching role.

Fitzy would be the first to tell you that he wasn't anywhere near ready at the time and, ironically, his career path worked in the opposite direction to the norm, moving down through national underage and eventually to club.

The same principle applies in other codes. Bobby Charlton and Roy Keane would figure in most lists of all-time midfield footballing greats, but Charlton, in his time, and Keano, in his attempts to date (bar limited success at Sunderland), both struggled to impose the type of coaching direction and success most would have deemed, given their playing brilliance, an absolute given.

Though clearly intertwined, successful coaching is a different discipline to successful playing entirely.

Playing success is no guaranteed forerunner to coaching success and don't let anyone kid you otherwise.

Former Garryowen and Munster winger O'Sullivan was a solid hard worker throughout his rugby playing career. His forte, even back then, was in coaching. From his earliest student days, his interest was understanding how and why pre-rehearsed moves and systems worked.

And when they didn't, he was even more intrigued and highly driven to root out the reasons why. Where I would be more than content to know the ignition was working and the engine ticking over nicely, Eddie would be the top mechanic, tearing it asunder before meticulously putting it back together again nut upon bolt.

Now that he has announced his intention to quit the Eagles and seek employment closer to home, I will be astonished if his services are not snapped up rapidly.

Like all of us he has his personality quirks, but when it comes to knowledge of the coaching game, he is up there with the very best. He may not thank me for suggesting it, but if I was involved in 10/12 Lansdowne Road, I would be looking to create a role for O'Sullivan coaching coaches at an elite level within the IRFU.

Expertise from overseas has been vital to the pro game's evolution -- and that will continue to be the case -- but minus a fluid indigenous coaching structure we are skating on thin ice. Clearly not every former player can become a coach in retirement, but the more that try the merrier and, as with playing, the cream will invariably rise to the top.

A much more detailed preview to the second series of games in this season's Heineken Cup can be found elsewhere on these pages, but, with due respect to the other three provinces, this weekend it's all about Connacht, with heart-on-sleeve head coach Elwood taking centre stage.

The Sportsground will be rocking like never before as the crème de la crème come to Galway. It is a great night for rugby in the west as Elwood goes head-to-head with Guy Noves, the Alex Ferguson of Heineken Cup rugby.

Time for Gerry Kelly and everyone involved in getting to this stage to pinch themselves and however unlikely it might seem, don't rule out the impossible. Sweet dreams are made of this.

•Ballinasloe RFC will be staging a very important fundraiser on Thursday, December 15. Top comedian Tommy Tiernan will be presenting his new show 'Poot' in the Carlton Shearwater Hotel, Ballinasloe at 8.30. Tickets cost €28 and are available from Ticketmaster and the Shearwater Hotel.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport