O'Sullivan may need to look abroad to revive career
ON RUGBY:A minute from the end of the Ulster-Castres game in the Heineken Cup at Ravenhill last October, the French team suddenly broke upfield to threaten a try. With Ulster on three tries, Eddie O’Sullivan, who was commenting for Newstalk, opined that this could work to Ulster’s favour. Sure enough, within 30 seconds, Ruan Pienaar was scoring at the other end off a turnover with the last play.
Few characters in Irish rugby provoke such polarised opinions as the former Irish coach and, without a full-time coaching job since relinquishing his position with the USA Eagles after the last World Cup, he assuredly has more to offer the game than stints as a radio co-commentator.
He has considerable experience in the game as a player and coach, but unfortunately his man management skills and off-field dealings haven’t endeared him to everyone in the game.
This dates back to 1996 and specifically to Connacht. O’Sullivan was in place to coach them for what was then a 14-week window at the start of the season. Coming to the end of his sabbatical from teaching, and with the game having just gone professional, O’Sullivan sought a longer-term deal. The IRFU were not in a position to make such an offer and in the stand-off that ensued, O’Sullivan stood down on the eve of the season.
As one member of the Connacht squad put it at the time, “he was here one morning and gone after lunch”. The squad departed to Sweden for a pre-season camp without a head coach and this, ironically, led to Billy Glynn, now the IRFU President, ringing the former Galwegians player-coach Warren Gatland, who agreed to fly to Sweden at a day’s notice.
And so began Gatland’s coaching career in Europe, which would of course see O’Sullivan become his assistant with Ireland at the turn of the millennium before succeeding Gatland less than two years later.
This is not to be vindictive toward O’Sullivan who, assuredly, still has something to offer the game. It is merely to redress the balance. Whether or not Connacht should have let bygones be bygones, it is undeniably the case that O’Sullivan would not have been an entirely popular choice within Connacht as their next head coach.
But in addition to reading newspaper articles and listening to pundits on television and radio, the interview panel charged with finding a replacement for Eric Elwood, (namely Connacht CEO Tom Sears, Eddie Wigglesworth of the IRFU and Conor McGuinness and Steve Cunningham of the Professional Game Board) exhaustively researched all the leading candidates among the 30-plus candidates for the post.
This included canvassing current and past coaches and players, as well as others in the game, from all over the world. Much has been made of the comment by Glynn that the next Connacht coach should ideally be Irish.
This was taken somehow as an endorsement of O’Sullivan’s candidature, which it wasn’t.
That all four Irish provinces will be coached by Kiwis next season is not Connacht’s fault or problem. It is worth noting that of the 30-plus candidates who applied for the job, O’Sullivan was one of only four Irish men. Irish rugby is not an attractive or productive pathway for indigenous would-be coaches.
Under Eric Elwood, his assistants Billy Millard and Dan McFarland, and Academy/under-20 coach Nigel Carolan, Connacht have sought to undertake quite a transformation in their style of play over the last three seasons. Their younger players especially are being coached in a southern hemisphere style, with an emphasis on attacking space, on identifying mismatches and an offloading game.
Aside from building himself a somewhat dictatorial reputation, O’Sullivan is known for coaching a highly patterned style of play, with players told six, seven, or even more phases in advance of their specific roles.
Whatever the extent of that – and his defenders maintain his time working with Brian O’Driscoll and the like has seen him more willing to empower players – he has not coached below the international game since the 90s, defences have progressed significantly in the last decade and for rugby reasons O’Sullivan was not seen as the right fit for Connacht. That is entirely their prerogative.
The media outcry over their refusal to put him on their shortlist comes across as annoyance that the Cinderella province didn’t do what they were told. There was nothing like the same outcry, from him or his supporters, when he wasn’t short-listed for the Munster or Ulster jobs which became available this season.
For sure, he lives in Moylough, but he has far greater ties with his native Munster.
Not alone was there nothing like the same annoyance over Munster’s preference for Rob Penney, one imagines there won’t be if and when Leinster eventually look to replace Joe Schmidt with someone else.
Given Wigglesworth’s presence on the panel, it would appear the IRFU are not as fond of O’Sullivan as they once were either. But Sears did meet O’Sullivan in a Galway hotel last November for an informal meeting of about an hour and a half. It was therefore surprising that O’Sullivan aired his grievances over not being short-listed and thus formally interviewed for the job, and that correspondence between him and Sears was made public.
Indeed, the lack of confidentiality in this process is somewhat disrespectful and must be hugely annoying for the Connacht hierarchy.
Sadly, there would appear to be no full-time job at the top end of Irish rugby for O’Sullivan any time soon and, if he is to revive his coaching career, he may have to look abroad. One wishes him the best. But one wishes Pat Lam and Connacht the best too.