Saturday 25 November 2017

Sinead Kissane: Carolan's magic touch brings best out of young stars in final build-up

Nigel Carolan. Photo: Sportsfile
Nigel Carolan. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Nigel Carolan and his young Irish team have been shaking things up since they arrived at the World Rugby U-20 Championship and not just in terms of the teams they've beaten on their way to today's final against England.

Carolan has been doing their video review sessions after every game a little differently to normal procedure. 'Normal' is having the head coach stand at the top of the room in a typical teacher-pupil role as he points out the wrongs and rights of what the players did.

However, since pitching up for this championship three-and-a-half weeks ago, Carolan has been getting his players to conduct the video review session themselves while he stands at the back of the room and watches on.

Instead of players being made to feel like they're in the dock for any mistakes made, the players become the witness, defendant and jury during these review sessions which is a clever reversal of roles with the overall aim of empowering these young men.

"It's just a little reverse on what we normally do. It's the lads who do all the talking, it's the lads who are encouraged to feed-back to each other," Carolan explained.

"The information they've been coming up with is very similar to what we do but it's the fact that it's their own means it is way more manageable to them because it's their message, it's the work they've done. At the end of that process, what they do is they agree what the common learnings are among the team and they present it back to the coaches.

"We're just trying to take the spoon-feeding out of it so that we're not doing everything for them."

Someone, somewhere could put a fancy label on Carolan's outside-the-box thinking. But this team has also been ticking boxes in this tournament.

Dramatic comeback against the Grand Slam champions Wales? Next. First men's national team to beat the All Blacks? Sure.

Get revenge for every Irish player to be humiliated by our international nemesis Argentina? Got your back, man.

Beat England today in a World final? "We're very confident," Carolan insisted.

Carolan is coming into his own as one of the most talented young coaches in Irish rugby.

In his job as Connacht Academy manager, Carolan - along with Jimmy Duffy - is the man who enticed Ultan Dillane to Connacht.

He played a huge part in the development of Connacht players who broke into the Irish senior team this year not to mention the Pro12 success. Not bad for a man who turned down the original offer to get into coaching!

After finishing playing, Carolan (right) wanted out of rugby and after a year away the job offer came up again for Carolan (who has a degree in marketing and a higher diploma in systems analysis) and he took up the position of development officer with Connacht before becoming the Academy manager in 2004. He hasn't looked back.

Carolan laughed when I asked him how he describes himself as a coach. "I like to think I'm fair. Planning and detail are very important to me," he said.

"We're trying to instil a philosophy in how we play the game, in that it's quite open. We have a low-risk game and a high-risk game and we're trying to instil in the lads to find the balance between the two."

On Wednesday this week at their team hotel, Carolan sat down with each player in the 28-man Irish squad for 10 minutes to find out what they learned about themselves and their game during this tournament. He also wanted to make sure he spent time with certain players.

"I think it was important to have some quiet time with the guys who haven't had much involvement. Just to empathise with them," Carolan added.

"We're just trying to make them feel valued."

Maybe it's because the squad players feel valued which has added to the value of the team. Carolan says the team "feels like the intimacy of a club side or a school team".

But how has he and the management team been able to manage a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old men who've been living in each other's pockets for the past three weeks and playing the biggest games of their lives so far?

"We're finding we're combinations of everything. We're teachers, we're parents, we're friends, we're trying to be all things to everybody," Carolan admitted. "It's very important that it's not too structured."

When the Irish team played in the victorious U-19 World Cup in France in 1998, the forwards got their heads shaved, much to the annoyance of their head coach Declan Kidney.

At the time of writing, this current group haven't done anything as dramatic other than bonding sessions involving things like "song contests, art competitions, table quizzes".

Forget shaving their heads. This squad of young men have been allowed and encouraged to use their heads by Carolan.

Beat England today in a World final? Wouldn't doubt them. It should be a match worth watching on a weekend to remember.

Irish Independent

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