Kieran Keane makes his absence felt at Champions Cup launch

New Connacht coach has ‘old-school values’ says assistant coach Nigel Carolan

Connacht assistant coach Nigel Carolan: “I think we are on the right road. I think the players are excited by how they train, by how they play.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Kieran Keane clocks up 64 years in February, so any roads to Damascus were travelled a long time ago.

“Kieran has old-school values,” shrugs Nigel Carolan. “He may not change.”

Nor did Keane journey to Dublin for yesterday’s European launch. Instead, his able assistant Carolan joined John Muldoon along with other coaches and captains who, unlike the Connacht duo, gave the impression of wanting to be any place other than the Convention Centre.

If Keane’s post-match utterances alter, presume disingenuous cue-card reading. And nobody wants that.


Still, the Connacht boot room were compelled to show their new boss his recent Sky Sports interview with Graham Simmons (after defeat to Cardiff in Galway). Then they played Brendan Venter’s interview from a few years ago.

The difference was clear. Venter was so obviously playing dumb while Keane was too pissed off to dance a jig to Simmons’s post-match ditty. But, he knows now, the non-responsive approach ended up creating the theatrical result he strained to avoid.

“When we showed it back to him he started laughing and said, ‘I can’t believe that’s the way I came across.’ So everybody is learning. But his brutal honesty is his strength, even if he gets slagged for it.”

Maybe the lesson for reporters is to ask the old man questions devoid of fluff but, either way, that silly game after the game still needs playing. It’s part of every professional coach’s remit.

The grizzled Kiwi stare, while intimidating and endearing in equal measure, does not carry much weight in these parts after years of such men travelling north with magic formulas doused in simplicity. Television remains the clearest route to communicating with supporters, and, even on the cringy terms laid out by Sky’s hype machine, this remains unavoidable so long as their millions keep the competition afloat.

Positive stroke

Keane’s absence proved a positive stroke. Carolan is the best young Irish coach on this island right now, having gone from running the Connacht academy to an impressive stint as Ireland under-20s coach, until grabbing the rare opportunity to step up to senior ranks on the Keane ticket.

“He is brutally honest,” Carolan continues. “He says what he thinks. When he is disappointed he speaks like he is disappointed, when he is happy is speaks like he is happy.”

Keane is, also very clearly, not of Pat Lam’s ilk. Not so charismatic, different methodology, more inclusive and possibly less tyrannical. “Ah, they are very different,” says Muldoon. “Different personalities. Their views on stuff are very, very different but, ultimately, they both have the same mindset that they want to attack. They want to play rugby in the right way.

“How they want to do it is different. There are similarities but they are poles apart as well.”

More information is craved.

“Change will always be a little unsettling,” says Carolan after four defeats, two of which were firmly on course to being home victories, in five Pro14 outings. “They have a different mindset on how to play the game. It is a different way of coaching: very collaborative, very player-led and very outcome-based.”

Sounds very encouraging. Carolan took the opportunity to leave a secure position with the Ireland under-20s after seeing how the Chiefs attacked under Keane’s tutelage, how they tore down defensive walls in Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland.

‘Right road’

“If we change direction [after a few defeats] it will cause confusion. I think we are on the right road. I think the players are excited by how they train, by how they play. I don’t think it is that far away. It’s important that we stay on the road and minimise the mistakes. It’s about winning our way rather than going back to a negative way.

“I think the traditional way was very process-driven.” Carolan continues. “For players it just means it is steep learning. Some of the early results have just not gone our way but I think it is building nicely. How close we got against Scarlets at the weekend shows it is on an upward curve.”

Upward curves for Connacht in Belfast have been non-existent since 1960.

“Statistics tell a story but sometimes they don’t tell a true story,” Muldoon protests ahead of Friday’s interprovincial. “The question you have asked is have we gone away from [the culture that delivered a Pro 12 title]. We are still the highest passing team, still the most amounts of minutes [OF]ball in play. Unfortunately we are not making our tackles and it is costing us badly but we are still asking the questions of other teams to tackle us. We are still playing an attacking brand of rugby, just a little differently. We are still not kicking the ball much, a little bit more but not much.

“Change is good sometimes,” he smiles. “Nice to listen to Nigel as well but, sure, I’ll be sick of him in a few weeks too.”

Keane and Connacht abide for now.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent