Tuesday 16 January 2018

'Jonny had offers on the table before he came to us and they were out of our league'

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A TUMULTUOUS 12 months in Irish rugby drew to a close in Toronto as Les Kiss' side signed off with a bang against Canada.

A TUMULTUOUS 12 months in Irish rugby drew to a close in Toronto as Les Kiss' side signed off with a bang against Canada.

This time last year Declan Kidney's side were in the midst of a nightmare tour to New Zealand which finished with a record 60-0 loss and what followed over the course of the year was a series of lows as the country's most successful coach's reign ended in a farcical defeat to Italy.

In the middle of it all, Jonny Sexton's departure to France was announced with blame being laid at the IRFU's door, while Ireland's Six Nations campaign was blighted by an unprecedented injury crisis. The advertised vacancy for a scrum coach remained unfilled, while debate raged over non-Irish provincial players.


The IRFU came in for fierce criticism throughout, with coaches, pundits and even players putting the boot in on a range of issues, with the men making the decisions dismissed as 'blazers' and 'dinosaurs', out of touch with the modern game.

As chairman of three of the Union's most influential committees, the National Team Review Group (NTRG), the Player Contracting Review Group (PCRG) and the Representative Game Committee (RGC), Martin O'Sullivan has been involved in all of those big decisions, from opting not to renew Kidney's contract to hiring Joe Schmidt and deciding not to agree to Sexton's agent's demands.

In a rare and exclusive interview with the Irish Independent, he gives the IRFU's side to the big stories of a year that will go down in infamy.

Ruaidhri O'Connor: The NTRG was in the spotlight this season because of the decision taken not to renew Declan Kidney's contract and, then, to hire Joe Schmidt. Could you explain those decisions?

Martin O'Sullivan: "We would have had quite a number of meetings with the previous management team over a period and the process would have been to set them Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the section of the season, the three Test series, and assess them against those.

"We knew Declan's contract was up at the end of June and the other guys' too so it is on your mind for a while, it is something that you are looking towards.

"When it got to the end of the season we did a debrief, not just with Declan but with the four other coaches, and took some other soundings and we then came to a decision not to renew their contracts.

"We moved on from there and we had a vacancy to go and try and find somebody and that we had an obligation to Irish rugby and all of the stakeholders to do as professional a job as we could.

"We felt we owed it to the game and to everybody to do the best job we could so we engaged the services of an agency in the UK who had a lot more ease of access to people in the game than we had.

"We spoke to 15 of the top coaches in the world, we shortlisted a number of them. We included Keith Wood on the interview panel, did the interviews and you know the result."

RO'C: Was it a difficult decision to let Declan Kidney go?

MO'S: "Obviously it was difficult, you have to acknowledge people's contribution to the game and Declan has made a phenomenal contribution to the game.

"By some distance, he has been the most successful coach involved in Irish rugby over the period. He has a phenomenal record and he won the first Grand Slam in 61 years.

"We felt the time was right and a fresh approach was needed."

RO'C: Is the job still as attractive as it once might have been?

MO'S: "We took some advice and identified 15 of the top 20 coaches in the world and the ones that you mightn't have gone near were the ones that you were sure were unavailable. We really were happy, we had a top-notch group of people and, reading through the CVs you couldn't help but be satisfied."

RO'C: Schmidt has spoken about struggling to define the measure of his own success as Ireland coach. How will you define the success or failure of this management?

MO'S: "We gave each candidate a set of the KPIs we put in place and they were pretty stretching and challenging and the people we interviewed had no issues with them and said it was right that we had high expectations.

"The type of expectations we have revolve around winning championships, winning Six Nations more often than we did. To only win one Grand Slam in 61 years in my view is not acceptable. Equally, we need to perform better at the World Cup."

RO'C: The practice of the national team coach presenting his plans to the NTRG before Test matches has drawn heavy criticism. Will it continue?

MO'S: "It hasn't really been discussed. What will continue is the regular giving of KPIs and they accept that. That is standard business practice, we all have it in our own jobs.

"We will discuss it with Joe and whatever we're comfortable with as a group, we're not going to force anyone to do something that is completely anathema to them.

"It was a good way of not only the committee understanding what the coaches are doing as they assess performance, but equally, we would collaboratively work to solve issues that arose.

"If there was ever a complaint about it, we would have responded in the right way. It certainly gave us a chance to meet them regularly and get a feel for the tactics and approaches they were taking. Equally, it gave them an opportunity to raise issues that they themselves couldn't resolve.

"I do think it was misunderstood, I'm not aware that Declan, Mick (Kearney) or Paul (McNaughton) had any issues. They certainly didn't voice them to us. If they did, you have to take notice of what guys of that stature say to you."

RO'C: It has been used as an example of the system being antiquated and the IRFU blazers being out of touch. Is that criticism unfair?

MO'S: "I think it is unfair. What I would say about the structure is that as we proceed to being as good as we can be, which is our objective, we would be foolish and very arrogant if we didn't review our governance, our systems and our processes all of the time.

"We are currently doing that. If you look at Plan Ireland, which you will hear more of soon, the recommendation coming out of that is that we will put a professional in charge and there are a number of reasons for doing that."

RO'C: Plan Ireland will see the appointment of a performance director, a job that has been advertised. Will he create a buffer between coach and committee?

MO'S: "A lot of that has to evolve just yet. I would expect that the line reporting and practically all of the communication will be between the performance director and the coach. We shouldn't need to be involved there.

"If you're paying a professional to do a job, you have to let them at it. It would be foolish to do anything to compromise it in any way. The performance director would report to the CEO, as happens in any big business, and the Professional Game Board will be there to look at things from a strategic point of view as much as anything else.

"We have a payroll of €3-4m a year of people around professional rugby on a daily basis in the international and provincial set-ups. We need to get value from those people, but equally we have to let them do the job. That's the day to day."

RO'C: Is the appointment of the right performance director as important as getting the right coach?

MO'S: "I think it is. The coach will manage the now, this guy will be managing that and the long term."

RO'C: How do you respond to Jonny Sexton's criticism of the Union's handling of his contract talks? Will the process be reviewed?

MO'S: "There won't be a formal review, but we speak all the time. We are happy enough with the way it went. At the end of the day, we have a finite amount of money and money is much tighter than it was during the Celtic Tiger times for everyone.

"As managers of a big business we have to balance the books with a finite amount of money to spend and, likewise with contracts, we get a certain budget and have to work within it.

"If you were to pay every player what he or his agent thinks they deserve then you run out of that money pretty quickly and you add in a big inflator.

"Certainly, there is no doubt that if you pay one guy at a high level then the next guy who comes in the door feels that he has an equal right to it. So, as in any business, you have to draw the line at some point.

"We had negotiations for a number of months with Jonny's agent and we couldn't reach an agreement. He had offers on the table before he came to us and they were out of our league.

"We're told he's the best-paid player in Europe, if not the world. We're a small little country, there is limits to what you can do.

RO'C: Is there a fear that others will follow?

MO'S: "It is not a fear, it's a reality. Tommy (Bowe) went to the Ospreys and came back and Jonny is the next guy to go.

"We are good payers, if you look at unions around the world it is acknowledged that we are as good a payer as anyone else, better than most. Certainly, the way in which our players are managed and work stands up in comparison to anyone else in terms of managing their game time, their welfare, the treatment they get.

"There will always be guys who want to go to further their careers or to get an experience that is not available to them at home and, in all the cases and specifically in Jonny's, we wish him all the best."

RO'C: Are you happy with the situation regarding non-Irish qualified players?

RO'C: "We're happy where it is, but we're open to having another look at it and, if we look at it, it's down (in quota) we go instead of up.

"It is interesting that two of the provinces this year didn't use their full allocation, so I think they see the benefit of bringing through their own players – and there is a money situation too because these (imported) guys are expensive and have huge expectations."

RO'C: Is the next challenge going to be to do something similar for coaches given all five main coaching jobs are now filled by outsiders?

MO'S: "Ideally it would, but the first priority is to have the best coaches we can for our players. It is a dream that they'd all be Irish, but we're a bit away from that."

RO'C: What is the situation regarding the scrum coach position advertised in 2011 and does more need to be done to bring through tighthead props?

MO'S: "Yes is the answer to the last bit. We did advertise and interview people but we didn't go ahead and there was a number of reasons.

"We have a different take on it now. Colin McEntee, our high performance director, is taking responsibility for working with the scrum coaches in the provinces, the CEOs and head coaches, to get everyone on the same page and we are driving the development in the provinces with the help, where we need it, of consultants.

"We had New Zealand scrum coach Mike Cron in last year and he did a tour of the country and spoke to a lot of the guys and we will continue to that for the moment, but we're not closed to doing something different and we certainly need to get it right."

Irish Independent

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