O'Sullivan deal leaves room for Lions post
Niall O'Donovan is set to step into the fold as Ireland head coach should Eddie O'Sullivan land the position of Lions' head coach for the tour to South Africa in 2009, whereupon, regardless of results, O'Sullivan will reassume the Irish job until the conclusion of the 2012 Six Nations.
Conceivably, O'Sullivan's involvement with the Irish team could now stretch to a dozen years. Having already served as assistant/backs' coach for 18 Tests and two years to Warren Gatland, O'Sullivan was appointed in November 2001 until the conclusion of the 2004 Six Nations with Declan Kidney his assistant coach. But before the 2003 World Cup, O'Sullivan was given a four-year extension until the conclusion of next year's Six Nations, with Kidney's contract not being renewed in 2004 when O'Donovan became assistant coach.
O'Donovan took over from O'Sullivan for the two Tests in Japan in 2005 while O'Sullivan was with the Lions.
Granted unprecedented power, player access, investment and back-up for an Irish coach, he has undoubtedly taken Ireland forward in that time, most notably with three Triple Crowns in the last four years, including some stunning wins in the Six Nations such as the Croke Park dissection of England last February, as well as a number of autumn scalps, intermingled with some heavy defeats to the Big Five, five successive losses to the French and a disappointing 2003 World Cup campaign.
The decision was made by the IRFU appointments committee, which consists of Noel Murphy, Pat Whelan and Neilly Jackson, with IRFU chief executive Philip Browne, director of rugby Eddie Wigglesworth and John Hussey, chairman of the management committee. It did not need to be ratified by the management committee and, indeed, some members of the IRFU committee did not know of the announcement prior to it being made.
Six years and 69 matches into his reign, were O'Sullivan to see out another five Six Nations he could conceivably be in charge for around 120 matches over a decade, but rejected any notions his reign might become stale. "My view is after six years, there's no evidence of that among the team or among the staff. We all seem to be enjoying what we're doing and doing a reasonably good job at it, so why not continue? If I hadn't the energy or the enthusiasm for another four years I wouldn't be sitting here this morning and accepting that job.
"I believe I have the energy and enthusiasm for it, I believe the staff around me have, and I've no doubt the players have as well . . . So I think that's a subjective view about staleness; it's really down to the dynamics of the group around the team and it's worked pretty well up to now . . . so I'm happy to continue."
O'Sullivan restated his ambition of leading Ireland out of their group in the forthcoming World Cup "and into the semi-finals and kick on from there". As for the ensuing four years - ie additional five Six Nations campaigns and a third World Cup - O'Sullivan said "more of the same and what we've been doing for the last four years, which is trying to push the team to as high a level as we can and achieve as much as we can with the players we have . . . and there are some exciting young players coming through now."
O'Sullivan said he would try to keep O'Donovan, skills/continuity coach Brian McLoughlin, defensive coach Graham Steadman and the rest of his back-up staff on board after the World Cup.
Explaining the rush into sealing this deal, Browne reasoned: "The situation is we're dealing in World Cup cycles, that's the way the game has developed and it makes sense from our point of view to deal with the national coaching set-up on a World Cup cycle basis, and one of the issues really is to marry up the short-term objectives around the Six Nations with the long-term objective at the end of that four-year cycle of having a World Cup team prepared and going forward."
O'Sullivan has come up slightly short of the IRFU's goals as outlined in their Strategic Plan in 2004, namely: to be consistently ranked in the world's top four sides (Ireland are currently sixth), winning at least one Six Nations, and finishing at least in the runners-up position in three out of the next four Six Nations. Browne maintained: "We're happy with our decision, regardless what happens in the World Cup. Our view is that Eddie is the best man for the job."
Regarding his stated candidature for the Lions' job, O'Sullivan said: "The union are happy to give me the sabbatical to take that on board for the time involved," and although Browne would not be drawn on what the IRFU's contingency plans were, O'Donovan has already been sounded out to temporarily fill the void.
Asked about the plans and potential career paths of the provincial coaches resulting from the status quo at the top of the tree, Browne was somewhat vague. "At the end of the day, we've a good cadre of coaches in Ireland and they're all getting good experience as they go along . . . at the end of the day there are opportunities within the Irish coaching set-up as it is."