Kieran Keane, the current Waikato Chiefs backs coach, has emerged as a strong contender to take over from fellow New Zealander Pat Lam at Connacht from next season onwards.
A host of other contenders, mostly less experienced and nearly all Kiwis as well, have been named as the province’s preferred choice, but after a coaching career spanning over 40 years, the 63-year-old Keane is seen as the kind of proven head coach whom the Pro12 champions have identified as Lam’s successor.
In his playing career, mostly as an inside centre, Keane represented Canterbury at provincial level, and was a member of the the All Blacks squad in 1979. He played six matches for the All Blacks but did not appear in any Tests.
The highlight of Keane’s coaching career was his seven-year stint as head coach of the New Zealand province Tasman Makos from 2009. After a difficult few years punctuated by financial problems, he helped Tasman become a major force on the provincial scene.
“It’s been the highlight for me, so far,” said Keane after his stint with Tasman. “Because I’ve lived through the lows and got to the highs, so there has been an element of satisfaction that has come out of that.
“I had always wanted to coach Tasman, coming from here and having such a connection with the place, and a history.”
Founded in 2006 with the amalgamation of Marlborough and Nelson Bay, and initially beset by financial problems in their formative years, Tasman's story has uncanny echoes of Connacht, especially under Lam. They finished ninth in his first year, 12th in his second and bottom of the championship in 2011.
“The lowlight was when we went to the bottom,” recalled Keane in an interview after his tenure ended. “We were in trouble financially and we had all sorts of issues within the union. That pervaded right through to the flagship team and it was a real struggle.”
“Having to work crazy hours on a shoestring; it was hard yards. But the people in my management group had a passion to stick with it. Nobody likes to go out a failure so we hung in like a poor relation. We were basically a bit brassed off with how things unfolded so we went to the union and formulated a plan, once the New Zealand union had given us the green light to stay. It became quite personal.”
Neither Keane nor assistant coach Leon MacDonald (something of a Keane protégée who has been one of those linked with Connacht along with Tony Brown and the Ulster-bound Jonno Gibbes) went back to scratch.
“Instead of dealing with a certain profile of player and putting up with some nonsense, we brought out a few sledgehammers; basically culled a few people and rebuilt the team,” explained Keane.
“We cracked the whip a bit, made some hard decisions, rolled our sleeves up. We got a game that suited the clientele, that they wanted to play. Although we weren’t that good at that stage it was quite exciting, an interesting hybrid to what most people were playing.”
In 2012 Tasman reached the semi finals, won the championship in 2013, and in 2014 reached the premiership final, the first newly-promoted side to do so, before finishing third in 2015.
The former schoolteacher earned a reputation as a somewhat abrasive character, but maintained: “I’m a much more moderate person now. I will reflect on things, although I still have my moments. I have always found that speaking my mind is a shortcut to getting where I want to go.
“Sometimes it ruffled a feather or two but all the boys knew they were going to get it as I saw it and most seemed to enjoy that. The game has changed, the players have changed and I had to change. Otherwise I would have died [as a coach].
“It’s been quite moving actually. It has actually made me a better person. I have always had a feel for the game and a love of the game, but this evolution of coaching has actually turned me into a much nicer human being at the same time. I’m grateful for that.”
As well as their attacking rugby, Tasman produced an increased conveyor belt of Super Rugby players before Keane became backs coach under Dave Rennie at the Chiefs last year. Wayne Smith has described Keane as a major influence.
Connacht are understood to be impressed by Keane’s proven abilities as a head coach, winning track record, style of play and penchant for both identifying and developing talented players.
Akin to Leinster headhunting Joe Schmidt, Keane would clearly be something of a leftfield choice, and like Lam succeeding Eric Elwood, might not be the most obvious one either. But then again, neither of those two worked out too badly. He looks a good fit.