Friday 20 July 2018

Bradley content in Italy exile but home fires burn

Michael Bradley takes up the reins at Zebre following a stint in Georgia and Romania. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Bradley takes up the reins at Zebre following a stint in Georgia and Romania. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Michael Bradley is taking the coaching path less travelled but, for one day at least, he is back on familiar turf.

A drop-kick away from where we stand, becalmed now beneath late summer sun, lounges the Lansdowne lawn where he set up a drop-kick that drowned a nation in delirium.

It is a moment encased in folklore: Brian Spillane's lineout take; Donal Lenihan's powerful surge; then Bradley's flung pass to Michael Kiernan; three points against England that would secure the Triple Crown.

"It's over!" Manufactured in Cork, magnificent in Dublin.

Convoluted

Closer to us now, Rassie Erasmus continues to explain his convoluted departure from the Munster gig that, at the time he assumed it 16 months ago, had numbered Bradley as one of the potential candidates.

It was, though, merely our media whim. The phone didn't ring. You sense he didn't expect it to. Munster have already embarked upon another global quest to locate a successor to Erasmus; continental Europe will not detain them. Again, you sense Bradley won't expect it to.

And so, after helping Georgia win four second-tier Grand Slams, and two World Cup tournament wins in 2015, he shipped himself off to Romania; promptly, he led them to a 'Slam', beating his former side in the process.

Now he has been charged with aiding another rugby revolution, hand-picked by his erstwhile Irish team-mate Conor O'Shea to reboot the sadly-stalled Italian rugby revolution at Zebre.

"I'm from Cork, I played with Munster," says the scrum-half, who won 40 caps for his country in an 11-year spell from 1984 until the 1995 World Cup.

"They have gone through four or five coaches since I've been a professional coach. They would be aware that I would like to coach them but, listen, it's up to them. They have their information. I'm not going to be knocking on their door every day. They make their own decision.

"I'm very excited about what Italian rugby is doing and what we can do. I'm used to these challenges now and I am used to the road ahead. Leinster and Munster can sort themselves out."

He is not agitating, mind. Since leaving these shores nigh on a decade ago, his has been an enigmatic and evangelising odyssey.

After spending arguably too long at Connacht when even their paymasters deemed they were neither profitable nor popular, Bradley's career trajectory seems to have settled on a peculiar path.

He may have surprised all by hauling an average Edinburgh to a European semi-final or being handed the responsibility of leading Ireland on a summer tour to New Zealand and Australia.

But, of late, it is his work amongst the emerging hotbeds of Eastern European rugby that have earned respect, far removed from the established hothouses on these islands.

Hapless

Now, with hapless Zebre abandoning their independence, fully absorbed by the Italian union, Bradley's responsibility is to re-establish the dormant rugby culture in this passionate but disparate rugby terrain.

"The job that needs to be done, I suspect, requires somebody they knew and they could trust," he explains. "That's really how it came about. It is important to have the right people in the right place. There is pressure on performance.

"We have 14 internationals so I've to help them identify why they should be winning matches as opposed to not winning matches."

Bradley will task his side to play off ten more than nine, not merely because the Guinness PRO14 champions in recent times have been expansive but also to make sure he tests player skills. Little point in always doing the same thing and still losing.

Then again, it is about winning hearts and minds as much as games of rugby; just as well, as perennial whipping boys Zebre have never been proficient in that regard.

Bradley knows the feeling. Connacht once fulfilled a similar role before their spectacular success two seasons ago. They had belief but crucially a platform upon which to build that faith.

"It is similar. When I went into Connacht, it was the year after the march and then ten years on they win the title. It must be built on a foundation, that your club means something to the players and management.

"Otherwise you will go around in circles. You have to work on values and recognition and put an identity in place."

His brief stint with CSM Bucuresti involved tortuous 14-hour bus trips that tested his resolve but you suspect the journey still thrills Bradley as much as the destination.

"When you have a lot of expertise and go to a country with little, you can bring something," he says. "It's rewarding when it works out.

"But then if you said to me in two years' time would I like to coach a Leinster or a Munster who always have the chance to win a European Cup, I would say absolutely yes.

"That's a different challenge. As coaches, you have a skill-set and people see value in that. This gig could be two or three years but the work will take longer."

Far away from home. Getting older, too as more younger voices grapple for dwindling jobs.

"Coaching isn't just about being young. It's about being wise."

Irish Independent

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