We've had our ups and downs but I still think Eddie O'Sullivan is a good fit for Connacht
FROM THE BLINDSIDE:I really don’t know why the former Ireland coach is being ignored, writes ALAN QUINLAN
When any club in any sport is appointing a new manager, the one thing they need is for it to go smoothly. Even if the process takes a while, you can say you’re just making sure you appoint the right man. What you can’t afford is to look like you’re having difficulty in getting who you want or to have people think that you’re ignoring somebody who is an obvious fit. All you’re doing there is making life difficult for whoever it is that eventually gets the job. Unfortunately, Connacht are now in the position where both these things are the case.
First off, it’s very bad form for Sean Holley to come out and say he’s turned the job down. What was he doing going for it if he didn’t want it? Now it’s just an embarrassment to Connacht that he has publicly said it’s not for him. Connacht should have either locked him down or made him keep the whole thing to himself.
On its own, the Holley thing looks bad enough for Connacht. But alongside it, there’s the Eddie O’Sullivan issue. Here’s a guy with more experience than Holley, an Irish coach who only lives half an hour away who is keen on getting involved. Yet he doesn’t even get so much as a foot in the door for an interview. The truth is, he’d probably have a far better chance if he sent in his CV with no name on the top of it.
Ups and downs
I played under Eddie for Ireland on and off for five or six years. By the end, I got on very well with him but it took us a long time to get there. Most players had their ups and downs with him. Me, I had downs and downs. From the start, he didn’t really understand me and I didn’t really understand him. I wasn’t one of the main players in the squad and that made him very hard to get to know.
I was coming from a provincial environment where there was an intimacy between the head coach and the players that got the best out of me.
Declan Kidney was as much a mentor to me as a coach, whereas Eddie was a guy who you were a bit wary of when you met him. He was all about discipline and the gameplan. It wasn’t his style to go for the personal touch.
In the beginning, I didn’t have any great problem with that. Every coach has a different approach and I respected the way he went about things. You could see that he was an excellent coach with a phenomenal rugby brain. If players needed somebody who they could talk to, we had Declan and Niall O’Donovan there. I was totally comfortable with both of them so it wasn’t such a big deal that Eddie kept his distance and concentrated on the rugby.
It became clear fairly early on though that he had a problem with me. Looking back, I can see why. I wasn’t the easiest player to coach, not the way Eddie liked to coach. He wanted players to really focus for every minute of training. He didn’t like players trying too many things off the cuff and he really didn’t have time for lads who wanted to mess about a bit. He wanted players who were robotic in a way and who would learn his gameplan and carry it out to the letter.
Annoyed at me
I definitely frustrated him by going off and doing my own thing sometimes. There would be the odd time where I’d break way from a pre-designed pattern, just to change it up a bit. I was playing well for Munster and I felt that one of my strengths was sometimes doing the unexpected and catching the opposition napping. But Eddie wanted things done the way he wanted them done. He’d get annoyed at me then and tell me to stick to the plan.
When you hear people say about Eddie that he lacked the personal touch, this is where it became a problem. I was used to having coaches that I could sit down with and chat to and get to know. I knew I wasn’t always the easiest player to handle but if a coach sat me down and explained what they were after and what I could do for them, I usually came through for them. Eddie’s approach came as a bit of a shock to me.
Things came to a head on a tour to New Zealand in 2002. Keith Wood was captain and he had a good chat with me ahead of that tour, coming off the back of losing the Heineken Cup final. He said that I was in with a serious chance of playing in the Test side. I thought it was a bit strange that Woody had the chat with me and not Eddie but either way, it was good to hear and it gave me real confidence that I’d get into the team. As it happened, I got injured in a warm-up game and missed the first Test but I recovered to make the bench for the second one.
I got the call to warm up in the second half. This was my first time playing the All Blacks and I was mad to go on and make an impression.
I did that anyway – 60 seconds later, I was in the sinbin for a stamp on Norm Maxwell. I remember sitting on the sideline and the picture I had in my head was of Eddie sitting up in the coaches’ box behind me with steam coming out of his ears. I really don’t help myself sometimes.
I was very low after the game. We had been 19-8 down when I got binned and we were 40-8 down by the time I came back on. We got on the team bus to head for the function and Eddie still hadn’t spoken to me. I was waiting on the dressing down that I knew was coming. As soon as I got off the bus, he pulled me aside and tore into me. There was a fair bit of finger-wagging, all of it deserved I suppose.
Lifted my spirits
Two things happened afterwards that made it harder for me to get my head around him. After the function, we all went to a nightclub and I was still feeling down in the dumps after what I’d done. I was sitting in the corner nursing a beer in the fairly small hours and Eddie came over and said, “Look, cheer up. It’s not the end of the world.” I was sitting there thinking that my Ireland career was over but he lifted my spirits with just a few words. That meant the world to me.
But then, a couple of months later, we had to play World Cup qualifiers against Romania and Georgia. The week before the Romania game, I was called up to his room. I had trained pretty well and I figured I was going to get a bit of a pep-talk about the future and about what he wanted from me in these qualifiers. Instead, I got another rollicking for what had happened against New Zealand and then he told me that as a disciplinary action, I was being omitted from the squad to play Romania. I accepted the punishment but I still went away not sure where I stood with him. What happened to it not being the end of the world?
From that point on, we sort of kept our distance from each other. Niall O’Donovan kept the peace between us – every once in a while he’d come to me and go, “Look, you’re driving Eddie mad – will you stick to the gameplan and don’t be going off on your own?”
But there was still a bit of nervous tension there between me and him. As I say, I didn’t understand why he wanted it that way. But I still respected him as a coach.
Funny enough, as the years went by and as I lost my place in the team to Simon Easterby, Eddie and I started getting along far better. We actually had a good chat after the 2003 World Cup that cleared the air between us. When Simon came in and started performing consistently, he was always ahead of me in the pecking order and I knew exactly why – Eddie loved consistency because it allowed him to plan without having to worry.
I was dying to get back into the team and yet Eddie and I were getting on really well and had no issues. By then, I think he saw me as a good guy to have around the squad and a good weapon to have off the bench or to fill in if there was an injury in the backrow. That was a period where there was great success under him and it was harder to get out of the Irish team than to get into it. It ended badly with the World Cup in 2007 but even though that tournament was frustrating for me, I didn’t hold it against him.
With the review that came after that World Cup, I think Eddie knew he had to change his approach. He couldn’t go on keeping his distance from people. He’s a very intelligent man and when I’ve met him since he left the Ireland job the following spring, I’ve noticed a change in him. He much more relaxed these days.
You wouldn’t call him cuddly but he’s definitely easier in himself. I met him during the World Cup in New Zealand when he was over the United States team and I could see that he was more in tune with what his players needed. And obviously, his rugby knowledge is still top-notch.
So why wouldn’t Connacht try to get him involved? It will be a terrible shame if someone with his credentials is lost to the game. Maybe there’s something going on in the background that hasn’t been made public – maybe the IRFU themselves aren’t keen to bring him back for whatever reason.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a better fit for Connacht than somebody like Pat Lam, who looks like he’s going to be the one.
As I’ve said before, I have no problem with our provincial coaches not being Irish, just as long whoever comes in is clearly the best man for the job. I don’t think that’s the situation in this case.