Swapping high summer in Sydney for the winter cold of the English East Midlands might not seem a palatable prospect, never mind for a job that on face value appears something of a hiding to nothing.
Yet for Alan Gaffney, even at the age of 71, there was little persuasion needed to convince him there was a challenge worth accepting when the Northampton Saints came calling for a rugby man with a lifetime’s experience to rescue their season from its current dire straits.
And for an Australian coaching veteran with a strong and successful affiliation to European club rugby, the opportunity to immerse himself in a Champions Cup campaign, however brief it may be for the down and out Saints, was a brilliant bonus.
Gaffney, with a decade of experience at the sharp end of the Heineken Cup during stints with Leinster, Munster, and Saracens, will today be back in the Europeanspotlight when Northampton host French championsClermont Auvergne atFranklin’s Gardens.
There will not be any glory in the offing to rival the five semi-finals he had a hand in during the noughties, while the heights of Leinster’s 2009 victory, when he served as Michael Cheika’s backs coach and technical consultant, will not be scaled. Saints will not even reach the base camp of a quarter-final this time around — Gaffney has arrived in Northampton with the aim of restoring confidence and stability in the wake of Jim Mallinder’s exit from the Gardens after an 11-game losing streaking in Europe and the league since the start of October.
Gaffney’s motivational skills brought an instant dividend as Saints kicked off 2018 with a much-needed victory, squeaking past in-form Gloucester at home with a last-minute penalty try. He has demanded that the improvement continues, regardless of today’s visit of Clermont being a dead rubber.
“This game is extremely important to everyone here. It may be a dead rubber but that’s not where we’re at, at the present time. We need to get the performance and our processes right. We may or may not get the result but we’ve just got to work very, very hard and play to ourhighest potential.”
Even for a man of Gaffney’s experience, taking on a club in Northampton’s situation is a new direction for the Australian’s coaching career.
“There’s been nothing like this for me before. This is a new venture. It’s a challenge, which is good and I’m very much enjoying it so far. It’s been a great experience and one which I’m looking forward to over the next four months,” he said.
“I fully appreciate that (it could be a hiding to nothing) but it didn’t take a lot of persuasion at all. I looked at the opportunity and I thought it was an honour to be invited so I grabbed it with both hands. Northampton have given me the opportunity and I’ve just got to repay that faith.”
Today’s appointment with Clermont and next week’s pool finale against Saracens have brought memories of occasions such as Munster’s miracle match against Gloucester and the subsequent quarter-final victory at Leicester Tigers flooding back for Gaffney, and his first brush with Saints during his first spell as Leinster backs coach under Matt Williams, when the province beat the then reigning champions home and away in 2000-01.
Northampton’s technical coaching consultant admits to a degree of muscle memory taking over this week as he immerses himself once more in the cut and thrust of European competition.
“It’s always a highlight and the Irish teams used to love playing in what was once the Heineken and is now the Champions Cup. It was a huge deal as far as the Irish provinces were concerned and I still regard it as that.
“Over the next two weeks we face two of the powerhouses of Europe so it’s going to be a big challenge. You go back to my last year in Leinster (2009-10) with Michael Cheika, we played Clermont in the quarter-final at the RDS and it was a hard battle that night and we ended up winning the game 29-28 and were possibly lucky to get away with it.”
As epic encounters go, Gaffney’s first campaign as Munster head coach in 2002-03 would feature heavily in any highlight reel and not just the 33-6 round six pool victory over Gloucester at Thomond Park.
Dispatching reigningback-to-back champions Leicester 20-7 on their home patch sometimes getsoverlooked in the shadow of the match that sealed their progress to the knockout stages, but not for Gaffney.
“That (Gloucester win) was the miracle match and I think it’s still regarded as that,” he said. “You go back to it and maybe it was but that quarter-final win against Leicester at Welford Road was some win.
“It’s very hard to split the two, and beating the English Premiership leaders as they were at the time 33-6 was some performance, but then again, to go to Welford Road and defeat Leicester, that was also some performance. It was a big effort because Leicester were champions, had beaten Munster in the final in the year before, and there were some classical names on that Leicester team, led by Martin Johnson.
“There’s been great highlights over the years. It’s just a fantastic competition. It’s changed a lot since I was last here but the quality of rugby hasn’t. I look across to Ireland and Leinster and Munster have been very, very good this year and full credit to the coaches and players.
“There’s new coaching teams in place from when I was there, they’re achieving good results and good luck to them all.”
The people he worked with in Ireland for the best part of a decade at Leinster, Munster, and in the Irish set-up as Declan Kidney’s backs coach until the end of the 2011 World Cup campaign, have never strayed too far from Gaffney’s thoughts. He continues to be amazed by the spirit, commitment, and resilience of the personnel involved in Irish rugby.
The death of Anthony Foley in October 2016, whom Gaffney coached and appointed captain following the retirement of Jim Williams, brought all of that into sharp focus for the Australian.
“I remember when Anthony Foley died, I came across for the funeral. I just had to come and I would have felt guilty for the rest of my life if I hadn’t. It just had to be done.
“I went to the game the following day against Glasgow. I don’t think there were too many people expecting Munster to have won that game after what had happened that week and the impact that had had, not only on the players but on the staff and supporters and the whole community there. Then to lose Keith Earls early on (red card) to a tough call and still win in that manner (38-17) with 14 men, it was a great performance.
“I don’t think Munster guys digging deep is any great surprise. They have for many, many years and I think they’ll do so for many, many years to come.”
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