Tuesday 23 January 2018

Sidelined by flawed system

John O'Brien

There's a scene towards the end of The West's Awake, TG4's searingly evocative documentary on Connacht's epic voyage through their maiden Heineken Cup campaign, that was impossible not to recall last week following the announcement that the province's accomplished lock forward Mike McCarthy would be plying his trade with Leinster from next season onwards, news that shook the Connacht faithful to their core as much as any harrowing defeat.

The whistle has just blown on a sodden, bitterly cold night at the Sportsground in mid-January. Amid delirious scenes, Connacht have held off Harlequins to win their first pool match, ending a disastrous 14-game sequence without a win in the process. The camera cuts to the stands where Eric Elwood is fighting a losing battle with his emotions. A smile flickers across his face. He puffs his cheeks and two hands go up to wipe the moisture from his eyes.

The Connacht coach wisely kept his counsel last week, but it's difficult to imagine that McCarthy's impending departure would have done anything other than crystallise for him the reasons why he is calling it quits at the end of the season. In the professional era where a natural order exists for the best players to gravitate towards the best teams with the greatest resources, the kind of homespun passion Elwood so admirably brought to the job seems a rapidly-growing anomaly now.

For sure, there's something sad about that, an unsettling feeling that something vital has been lost. Only a heart of stone – or the most one-eyed of Leinster or Munster supporters – could fail to sympathise with Connacht fans who watched their team send Biarritz packing at the Sportsground late last Friday week and thought, "We are really going places now". Brought back to harsh reality with one vicious blow. Two steps back, it seems, for every one step forward.

And yet, for all that, there's another way of looking at this. It's one thing for Connacht to feel sore at losing their best player to superior rivals, quite another – as their chief executive Tom Sears did on several occasions – to argue that the transfer was against the spirit, if not the law, that pertains in Irish rugby and at odds with the Union's responsibility to develop the game. The inherent hypocrisy here all but fatally undermined their entire argument.

Only the previous day it had been reported that the race to plug the gap left by Elwood's impending departure was reduced to six hopefuls, none of whom were natives of the province or even Irish-born. There's nothing essentially wrong with this. It's just Connacht playing the professional game, seeking to attract the best available candidate possible, the same imperative that drove Leinster in their pursuit of McCarthy. The development of Irish rugby bedamned.

But this isn't just about Connacht. When Elwood's replacement is in situ, we'll be left with a situation where the top four club coaching positions in the country are filled by foreigners.

It's not xenophobic to question this. There's an indisputable logic to the importing of outside coaching expertise when you are developing a sport, particularly if, as in the case of rugby, it comes with a southern hemisphere accent, but when it threatens to subsume the entire landscape then it is feasible to ask if the system is working or whether it is properly in place at all.

In the professional era, the Connacht job has always filled a vital role in the developing of coaching talent. But we need to be smart about this. In 1993, a youthful Warren Gatland arrived at the Sportsground and began a useful apprenticeship that was, ultimately, to the benefit of Wales and, further down the line you imagine, the All Blacks. Somebody needs to ask the question: how long do we want to continue to be a breeding ground for future southern hemisphere coaches?

That the shortlist for the Connacht vacancy didn't include the name of Eddie O'Sullivan was a major talking point and it seems scarcely credible that the former Ireland coach's stock could have fallen so low that even his native province is steering a wide berth. As a listener to Newstalk perceptively pointed out, there are now two former national coaches – O'Sullivan and Brian Kerr – sitting on the sidelines, maybe 60 years of coaching experience between them, lying idle and untapped. What sort of lunacy is prevailing here?

It doesn't particularly matter whether you believe that O'Sullivan and Kerr failed to cut the mustard when in charge of their national teams – very arguable in O'Sullivan's case at least – what truly counts is the depth and knowledge they could share in other roles. O'Sullivan remains a youthful 54, Kerr that bit older at 59, but still as passionate about football as the day, 44 years ago now, he took his first coaching role with the Crumlin United under 13s.

Of course, we know they can be difficult characters who like to be in control of things and, sometimes, it is not a straightforward process to find roles for individuals who have served their time in the top jobs. But that's a feeble excuse for not trying. You can be certain this wouldn't happen in other countries where proper structures are implemented and it certainly shouldn't be happening in a country like Ireland where indigenous knowledge and expertise is so much thinner on the ground.

The blame here doesn't lie with Connacht. It has been pointed out that O'Sullivan lives within easy reach of the Sportsground and was a handy gift waiting to fall into Connacht's hands once Elwood signalled his intention to quit. If they considered it and felt O'Sullivan didn't fit – over-qualified perhaps – then that is fair enough. If, however, the dead hand of politics has been brought to bear and there are people in powerful positions ensuring O'Sullivan is being kept out of the loop, then it is nothing short of disgraceful.

As for Kerr, you think of the wonderful job he did in the Faroe Islands and of the ideas – if not the results – he brought when he was Ireland manager, his brave if unfulfilled vision of dragging the team away from the slapdash regime that had existed under his predecessors and replace it with something much more streamlined and professional. How the Ireland set-up could do with some of those fresh ideas now.

Yet you think too of those currently in charge in Abbotstown and arrive quickly at the conclusion that Kerr's face simply doesn't fit right now. Under the present regime, there could be no role for Kerr in any capacity and Roy Keane, should the vacancy arise, could not be a feasible candidate to be Ireland manager. It's a rum business indeed.


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