Saturday 22 September 2018

Connacht need to choose between winning trophies or hearts and minds because they may not be able to achieve both

Nigel Carolan’s chances of being appointed Connacht head coach may depend on targets set for new man. Photo: Sportsfile
Nigel Carolan’s chances of being appointed Connacht head coach may depend on targets set for new man. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Let us play 'Spot the Difference'.

In his first season at Connacht, this coach led his side in 22 league games but won just six and lost 16.

They scored just 371 points - including 42 tries - but conceded a whopping 509 (54); ultimately finishing third from bottom with only Italians below. Not great.

Another led his side in 21 league matches, won one game more, lost two less, scored 405 points (53 tries) and conceded 477 points (54); ultimately finishing second bottom with one Italian below.

Spot the difference? Difficult, isn't it?

On the face of it, the latter's record is marginally superior - or rather marginally less inferior, if you'd prefer.

However, the coach with the slightly better figures was let go while the former was allowed to stay on.

Confused much? Connacht supporters would be forgiven for feeling so as their team begin the quest for a new coach at arguably the most inopportune time of the year.

There is an element of trickery to our little game, however.

Pat Lam, the coach with the poorer record of those outlined above, was allowed to stay on and in his third season would lead the province to their greatest day, victory in the Guinness PRO12 final against Leinster. The destination trumped the initial rocky road.

Kieran Keane has not been afforded the same opportunity so we will never know how his third season may have worked out. Or his second for that matter.

On the face of it, there are only two conceivable reasons why this fissure has happened and neither makes much sense unless those in charge have a wondrous gift of the mystic informing their next appointment.

First, that there was no indication that Keane could match Lam's achievements by year three; a process of skewed logic which, if universally applied, would have seen Leo Cullen hurried out of the UCD gates in 2016.

Second, Keane suffered from the inconvenience of not being Pat Lam which begs the question as to why those who appointed him had not noticed this when they had completed the "rigorous process" just over a year ago.

That process had ended a fairly rancorous denouement to Lam's tenure out west, the last six months of which were played out in an intensely fraught atmosphere off the pitch, and little joy on it.

The province's next move would be pivotal, as chief executive Willie Ruane confirmed when asked whether Lam's decision to quit brought any sense of crisis.

"The main thing is are the structures in place to allow you to continue to grow and achieve your objectives?" he asked before answering.

"If you don't have the structure where you can replace someone, that is a crisis."

Which may prompt another question. If you have the structure where you can replace someone who you then decide to ditch in double-quick time, then is that structure fit for purpose?

And if so, what exactly is that purpose?

Hauled before the province's Professional Games Board, effectively his employers, operating on behalf of paymasters the IRFU - Lam was forced to defend himself and justify the road he was paving.

Even though many of his players were unsure, the men in the suits clearly liked what they heard which was just as well, as they had hired him.

Keane, whether or not he faced such a summons this season, clearly didn't elicit a similarly favourable response.

Predictably, there have already been a slew of self-satisfied remarks delineating the reasons for the hasty divorce.

Whether it was the coach's relative disinterest in the club game or visiting local schools, to his often pithy press conferences where he was less than complimentary about some of his players, Keane wasn't doing or saying the right things.

But what exactly did Connacht want to hear?

When unveiling him to much fanfare, the chatter from the smart men was that his CV "spoke for itself".

It now appears that when Keane did the speaking, few were willing to listen.

Which seems surprising, particularly after one senior player had reacted to the departure of erstwhile pied piper Lam by announcing that the side had become too "robotic".

Only last Saturday, Keane, whose late arrival this season was inextricably linked to the terms of his engagement, alluded to a second successive pre-season that had been all but wasted and put on notice that this summer's review would not suffer from similar "lip service".

Instead, he was put on notice.

Now, Connacht Rugby must decide what their aims are and appoint a coach best suited to ensure that they fulfil those ambitions.

They can never rival the resources of other provinces so do they concentrate on winning hearts or minds or winning trophies?

Because the harsh reality is that they surely cannot do both. Connacht must now spot that difference.

Who might be in the frame for Connacht job?

Nigel Carolan

The obvious choice may not necessarily be the wrong one but does the highly-regarded development figure crave the top position?

Eddie O’Sullivan

Another local, although recent history informs that he is more well-regarded beyond the borders of his homestead than he is within it.

Bernard Jackman

Former player who has encountered a crushing first season of disappointment at Dragons so this chance may be beyond his, and the province’s, grasp.

Geordan Murphy

Believed to be on the radar of Cardiff, the long-time Leicester assistant craves an opportunity but it is uncertain whether he believes this is it.

Jake White

Tossed into the mix for every gig that becomes available, White heads the list of overseas names. If the province crave success at any price, the South African would be willing to name a high one.

Tony Brown

Brown was already on the radar last season while another exile in Japan, Rob Penney, could be tempted.

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