Nigel Carolan loves the pressure as Connacht revival continues
Backs coach finds job ‘relentless’ but is happy to be playing key role in shaping province
Connacht head coach Andy Friend and backs coach Nigel Carolan during the captain’s run at NMU Madibaz Stadium, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in November 2018. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Coaching is a precarious business, and as a long-serving director of the Connacht academy Nigel Carolan had that rare commodity – job security. He could certainly have extended his stay for many more years to come had he wanted.
Instead, he opted to pursue his desire to be Connacht’s full-time backs/attack coach, and all the time consuming pressures that come with it.
This Christmas the Connacht squad had one day off, namely Christmas Day, and were back training at the Sportsground the following evening.
“At the end of this block we get a break so fine, no worries. It comes with the territory,” reasons Carolan.
“Yeah, look, the role is relentless, whether you’re a player or a coach or a physio or whatever when you’re involved with a senior team. In the middle of those blocks of games it’s non-stop.
“Christmas became a little bit of a speed bump along the way. You don’t get to sit back and enjoy it like most people do but we’re not like most people. We’re also very, very fortunate to be doing what we do, particularly for me in my home province, to get this opportunity. The fact that we’re doing okay makes it all the more pleasing.
“We know as well that these jobs don’t last forever. You do the best that we can for the time that you’re there. Come the day I may have to look at other areas but at the moment it’s really enjoyable and I just feel very fortunate.”
Carolan had been coaching since 2008 with the Connacht Eagles and the Ireland Under-20s, and as head coach of the latter for three seasons had presided over their run to the 2016 World Cup final. It wasn’t just that he’d had a taste of coaching.
“I didn’t want to stagnate our programme in the academy as well just by staying on. I think it’s important that I also push my own boundaries. I’m fortunate that I have very good support at home from Siobhan and the kids [Milly and Ben], and they’re very adaptable. They’ve said ‘look it, when the time comes that we have to go, we all go together.’ I couldn’t do this without their support.”
His knowledge of the Irish under-age scene has been beneficial for Connacht, giving him trust in young players, and his experiences have also made him better prepared for this role.
Like head coach Andy Friend, forwards coach Jimmy Duffy, defence coach Peter Wilkins and the rest of the back-up team, it’s more of a results-driven job, and thus Carolan is now more in the firing line. But the key for this is that they can all look at themselves in the mirror at the end of the week and say they did all they could, and take the learnings from there.
“It is a cut-throat business but we try and prioritise what we do. We don’t waste time training. Every minute is an opportunity for development and those minutes are precious. And it’s the same with the games. We can’t afford to waste them but we can’t stress about it either. Whether we win or lose, as long as we’ve prepared as best we can that’s the most important aspect,” he says.
“But yeah, it’s hard sometimes, particularly when things don’t go your way, not to get dragged down into it. You do have to put on the brave face, to suck it up and see, until you can fix those areas that need fixing and go again.”
Some things don’t change though, and up there with winning is simply seeing players develop, be it in performance or being called into the Ireland squad. “I’m also working with really good people in Connacht. It’s a pretty tight group, and it’s an easy place to go in every day and work.”
Reared in Galway, Carolan’s father Mick had been a soldier from Drogheda, who was stationed in Renmore and married Anne, who is from Loughrea, rearing Nigel and his older brother Glen.
There being no rugby in the family tree, Carolan happened upon the sport. A neighbour in Renmore, Al Corcoran, who delivered cooking oil to the various restaurants around Galway, also used his Hiace van to take his rugby-playing sons and their friends to matches in Corinthians. Carolan’s brother hopped aboard one morning, and soon after so did Carolan.
He was 14 but being naturally fit and a good trainer, within seven years he was playing on the wing for Connacht and the Ireland Under-21s. Carolan has long since become part of the Connacht furniture, although he hadn’t planned it that way.
After a neck injury forced him to retire at the age of 26, but for the worldwide decline in the IT industry in the early noughties, Carolan and Siobhan might never have returned from Australia. Nor would he have turned to a career in coaching had not Tommy Conneely, the then Connacht provincial development manager, persuaded Carolan to put his name forward as a rugby development officer with the province.
He began that role in February 2002, and when the IRFU regionalised their academy structure, Carolan was appointed as Connacht’s first academy manager in 2004.
Allowing for his Aussie odyssey therefore, Carolan has effectively been 23 years with Connacht. “It’s more than half my life at this stage,” he says with a chuckle.
Nothing underlines the transformation he has witnessed over the years than tonight’s home derby which, like last weekend’s against Ulster, is another 8,000-plus sell-out.
But for that heartbreaking late defeat to Leinster a fortnight ago, Connacht would also come into this game on the back of seven straight wins.
They scored four tries and created other chances, despite a reshuffled back line. There were some clever strike plays, such as the opening tries by Cian Kelleher and Darragh Leader, and heads-up attacking rugby, with Jack Carty creating and scoring one for himself, and laying on another for Caolin Blade, before the game slipped away.
“There was a combination of a lot of things,” says Carolan. “One, Leinster had a lot of possession, but we gifted them possession that we shouldn’t have as well. It just meant that we had to defend twice as much as we normally would, and that was the key message out of that game for us; some of the inaccuracies in our kicking and how we use the ball.
“All credit to Leinster, there’s not many teams that could claw back 17 points in 12 minutes. It was hard to watch and it was hard to take, and we’ve only got ourselves to look at. We gave them a lot of opportunities to get back into the game, and that was the down side of it.
“But we bounced back against Ulster last week after a short turnaround, and that’s important. You take the key messages and see if you can apply them the following week.”
In this time of increased squad rotation, and due to a team’s training and preparation being done before selections are unveiled, Connacht have changed their approach this season.
“I would say 90 per cent of the work that we do focuses on ourselves and what we can bring to the game and the areas that we can apply pressure,” says Carolan.
The Sportsground is starting to become a real fortress again for Connacht. Their victory over Ulster was their fourth in a row at home since Leinster won at the Sportsground at the end of September, and Connacht have won 14 of their last 19 games in Galway.
“It’s ours. It’s not the prettiest, but it’s ours, and we capitalise upon that. We have an extremely vocal support and we rely on that. We want to put on a spectacle for them as well so that we’re a team that they can actually be proud of, not only by winning games but winning by playing rugby that they enjoy. It has to work both ways.”
Connacht have already won as many games – seven – as they did in their entire Pro14 programme last season.
“There are three things that have contributed to where we are at the moment,” says Carolan. “One, we have a positive environment. That’s first and foremost, and that’s what ‘Friendy’ has brought in. There’s a lot of player ownership on that, and players enjoy coming into work.
“The second thing is that there’s a lot of clarity in terms of what we do. Our messaging is quite simple. Whether we win a game or lose a game, we just take the key learnings from it; one to two areas. We don’t try to clutter the lads’ heads with too much information and try and fix everything. We focus on small things, but there’s real clarity in what we’re trying to do.
“I think the third thing is competition. There can’t be too many rumblings within the squad over guys not getting their opportunity. Over the last five or six weeks we’ve used every player that’s been available to us, and that’s adding to the environment as well.”
Under Friend, Carolan is also enjoying a more expanded role this season. “Last year it was more about back strikes [strike plays] and team strikes, whereas this season Friendy came in and said ‘I’d like you to look after all of the attack’. So, it’s everything from back strikes to how we attack as a team, how we exit and try and apply pressure right across the team. It’s quite a broad area. Again, the players have had input into that right from the outset.”
In his time with Connacht, Carolan has also witnessed some extraordinary growth, and ideally it won’t stop here. “The whole thing has mushroomed and hopefully it continues to mushroom with our plans to develop the Sportsground. It’s important that we can keep delivering on the pitch so that we can progress and make it a place that people want to come to, and want to stay.”
Along the way the highlight, undoubtedly, was the extraordinary Pro12 triumph of 2016, albeit there were a couple of seasons of re-adjusting themselves.
“There always will be. You look across at the Premiership and in the same year Leicester won the title, but it’s hard to sustain that every year. A lot of momentum took us to the win and I suppose with the upheaval of players and coaches changing, it was a little bit upsetting for a year or two. But the ship has been steadied again and we’re on the right course.”
While it was a hard act to follow, that 2016 title gave Connacht not only a taste of success, but an inner belief that it can, conceivably, be replicated one day.
“The lads in the group believe that we can do it again. All we can do is keep backing it up every week, in how we challenge each other, and we do. It’s a place that is very progressive.”
Connacht are on the up again.