Carolan happy to go on the at­tack

Con­nacht stal­wart and backs coach is en­joy­ing the all-con­sum­ing pres­sures that come with the role

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - Sports - Gerry Thornley

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-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 in Gal­way 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.”

Bound­aries

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, 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 un­der­age 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. 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.”

Fam­ily tree

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 at the RDS 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.”

Rum­blings

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.

‘‘ 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

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JAMES CROM­BIE/INPHO

Con­nacht head coach Andy Friend and Nigel Carolan on Pro14 duty in South Africa in Novem­ber: “We have a pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment. That’s first and fore­most, and that’s what Friendy has brought in.” ■

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