Gaffney is looking for expansive approach
Gerry Thornley meets Munster's new free-spirited Australian coach who, in taking over Declan Kidney's role, has much to emulate but may well be successful
By the end of his five-year reign, Declan Kidney had become not so much Munster's most successful ever coach but an institution. A legend in his own coaching tenure. In reaching two finals and a semi-final, no side in Europe had been more consistent, kick-starting the Red Army and the rejuvenation of Irish rugby. So how do you follow that? The first question Alan Gaffney asked of the Munster manager Jerry Holland and the Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald was how they'd all take to an outsider. But in truth, after two seasons as Leinster assistant coach, he's not really an outsider.
The word on the player grapevine would have been entirely positive. The Leinster players swear by him. His genius is in coaching individual skills to players, and he has a free-spirited, running philosophy to the game which is typically Australian and invariably strikes a chord with players.
"Gaff" is also your archetypal, easy-going Aussie. Engaging and affable, it's hard to imagine him not slipping seamlessly into any group. Besides, he'd also had nothing but positive vibes from the Leinster players about their Munster counterparts.
"Mate, I think the Leinster guys are absolutely right, because they (Munster) are great guys. They've got a lot of fun in them, a lot of craic, but when it's got to be done they just do the job. A few things have got to be changed or twigged here and there, but they know where they want to be. They have been close to the mountain top, and they want to get there. They've still got the desire."
One of the first things he had to do was buy into the Munster ethos. Mind you, he's still trying to figure out what exactly it is. "I asked Mick Galwey what the X-factor is, because there's definitely an X-factor here, but he said he didn't know."
Gaffney reckons that's a load of boloney, "because he must know but just doesn't want to tell me". Besides, a change is as good as a rest, and even the Munster players might benefit from a greater Australian input, completed by their choice of Jim Williams as captain.
As the Leinster players would testify, "never die wondering", is a favourite phrase which underpins his coaching approach. And to be true to it, he had to take the Munster job when offered.
It's funny how he's got here. The son of a bookmaker and from a rugby league background, chance, in the shape of his educational results, took him to Sydney Boys High, a rugby union school. An outhalf in the 1960s and '70s with Randwick, he looks back on his career with fondness and regrets.
"Oh I'm disappointed with what happened with injuries and that type of thing, but I didn't look after myself. If I was coaching myself today," he says laughing, and picking his words carefully, "I don't think I'd be very proud of my achievements during the week and at night. If I can put it in a very nice way."
He can still feel the scars of playing on with a knee injury and he drifted away from the game, setting up his own real-estate business. "But then I missed rugby and decided to get back into it." Bob Dwyer was the man who first lured Gaffney into coaching back in the early '80s at Randwick.
After 13 years coaching Randwick, Gaffney subsequently assisted Matt Williams at the New South Wales Waratahs on a part-time basis, while still running real-estate in Sydney. Williams then rang him to invite him over to Leinster two years ago.
"I just saw it as a great opportunity, because I was getting absolutely sick of what I'd been doing in Sydney for 30-odd years. It was a punt. We had to be successful or I'd be tipped out and I didn't know what I'd go back to, but it's worked out really well."
His wife Lorraine, a rugby enthusiast who's served on the Randwick committee, has always been supportive, though it's a wrench that his 24-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son are working and studying in Sydney.
Dwyer was one of the biggest influences on Gaffney's coaching, though ultimately, their relationship waned. "I'd say Dwyer was ahead of his time though I've lost a lot of time for Bob as a coach. I think he changed enormously in his coaching methods. His attitude to the game back in the 1980s was fantastic.
"Bob was very adventurous, but with the advent of professional rugby Bob's attitude to the game changed, which to me was a bit disappointing. Obviously he had to change to some extent, but I think he went a bit too far over to the other side. I watched the Waratahs on television this year and it was good to see them start attacking again, and I hope Bob does that again next year."
There's no doubting that Gaffney intends remaining true to his Randwick roots.
"It's the way I want to play the game, with ball in hand. Obviously there's a lot of time for kicking, particularly with someone as skilful as (Ronan) O'Gara. Because there's only three things you can do with it, pass it, kick it or run with it. Unless somebody comes up with something else, I don't know of any others, and we can't take away one of the three, as long as we don't take that (kicking) as a soft option."
He wants all his players to get their hands on the ball as much as possible, not running to breakdowns and hiding. Winning isn't everything. What gives him most satisfaction is his team playing well. But he won't hide behind Munster's mounting injury woes, even if injuries have left his squad looking particularly thin at openside and out wide.
"Mate, we've got a bloody good squad of players and as far as I'm concerned we're going out to win every game and we expect nothing less than to do particularly well in both the Celtic League and the Heineken Cup."
He tells his players not to think in terms of being blamed for doing something. "If they make a decision and it's the incorrect decision I really haven't got a problem with that, as long as they make a decision. It's an old cliché, but it's better to make the wrong decision, than no decision at all, and that's another thing I rely on in life. If I can bring that to them, I'll be happy."
His biggest job in rugby may have come to him later than most, and he's already noticed a change.
The time demands have been further intensified by Munster being dual-based in Cork and Limerick, and so far he has had less scope for individual skills on a one-to-one basis. But, with the help of video analysis, he has started some individual sessions.
With any coach, there'll always be frustrated players on the periphery of the first team, and it will be fascinating to see how the likes of Marcus Horan and Jeremy Staunton develop, or how the out-of-favour Mike Mullins responds, not to mention the established players of recent times.
He says he's not going to reinvent the wheel. So you ask what he'd like to think he can bring to the Munster equation: "I hope I can bring to Munster an open-mindedness to the game. I want us to be creative in our own way, to be expansive in the way we play the game and be prepared to go out and try things. Not to be painted in a corner as though this is the way Munster play the game.
"We've got to open our arms and just embrace what's out there, and take the opportunities as they're presented."
And never die wondering.
Munster: for the record
Ins: Warren O'Kelly (Clontarf), Simon Kerr (Queensland Reds), Dominic Malone (Northampton), Eddie Halvey (London Irish), Clinton Huppert (Wellington Lions).
Outs: Peter Clohessy (retired), John Langford (returned to Australia), Derek Hegarty (Leeds Tykes), Tom Tierney (Leicester Tigers).
Aug 31st: Celtic League, v Llanelli (a) 7.05.
Sept 6th: Celtic League, v Ebbw Vale, Musgrave Park (7.35).
Sept 13th: Celtic League, v Edinburgh (a) (7.30).
Sept 20th: Celtic League, v Swansea, Musgrave Park (7.35).
Sept 27th: CL/Interprovincial, v Ulster (a) 7.35.
Oct 5th: Celtic League, v Neath (a) 2.30.
Oct 12th: Heineken European Cup, v Gloucester (a) 3.0.
Oct 19th: Heineken Cup, v Perpignan, Thomond Park (3.0).
Oct 25th: Celtic League, v Caerphilly, Thomond Park (7.35).
Nov 29/30th: Celtic League quarter-finals.
Dec 7th: Heineken Cup, v Viadana, Musgrave Park (3.0).
Dec 15th: Heineken Cup, v Viadana (a) 2.30.
Jan 3rd/4th: Celtic League semi-finals.
Jan 10/11th: Heineken Cup, v Perpignan (a).
Jan 18th: Heineken Cup, v Gloucester, Thomond Park (3.0).
February 1st: Celtic League final.
April 4/5th: Interprovincial, v Leinster (a) or Connacht (a).
April 18/19th: Interprovincial, v Leinster (a) or Connacht (a).
Played 20, Won 14, Drew 1, Lost 5. Points for 522 (average 26.1), points against 321 (average 16). Leading points scorers: Ronan O'Gara 218 (2 tries, 53 pens, 20 cons, 3 drop goals), Jeremy Staunton 75. Leading try scorers: Mike Mullins 7, John Kelly, Anthony Horgan 6 each.