In the wake of a stunning year for Irish rugby that saw the national side win a first Grand Slam in 61 years, Ireland’s players have revealed they were split in their views of former coach Eddie O’Sullivan.
The Cork man brought his six-and-a-half-year reign to an end in March 2008, following a disastrous World Cup campaign and a subsequent disappointing showing in the Six Nations. O’Sullivan had guided Ireland to three Triple Crowns but narrowly missed out on a Grand Slam, only for his successor Declan Kidney to achieve the feat last season.
And in a new book – Grand Slam – How Ireland Achieved Rugby Greatness in the Players’ Own Words by Alan English – Jerry Flannery and Paul O’Connell are among the players to admit they are feeling the benefit of a change at the top.
Flannery said: “Putting bodies on the line is one of the strengths of the Munster pack but it was never fully utilised at national level before. If you do something well every week for Munster, then you come to Ireland and you’re not allowed to do it, you feel: ‘I’m not being given a chance to show what I can do here’.”
O’Connell added that the Ireland of old tended to try and run around teams, without much success.
“We probably hadn’t used the forwards enough to create space for the backs. We were a backs-orientated team but you have to take on the other team’s pack to win matches,” said the Lions skipper.
“We didn’t always do that. Sometimes we would play teams with weak defenders in their pack or at 10 and we would still try to go around them. They would just chase us out to the touchline and tackle us out there.”
However, O’Connell’s second row partner Donncha O’Callaghan had nothing but praise for O’Sullivan, while Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll also waxed largely positive.
O’Callaghan said: “I found Eddie brilliant – I came on so much as a player under him. I love patterns, structure, accountability.”
O’Driscoll feels O’Sullivan did “a brilliant job for a lot of years” but revealed he sought the advice of a sports psychologist after finding his confidence at an all-time low following the 2008 Six Nations.
“For the first time, I was a bit low in confidence. Sometimes you just need to hear someone saying nice things about you,” said O’Driscoll.
“I met him four or five times for an hour and a half at a time. There’s a lot said in that space of time. If you get three or four things out of that, that you believe in, it’s time well spent.
“I had always, always backed my own ability, irrespective of what shape I was in or what the public perception was. I always felt that when it came to it, I could produce. That’s a confidence bordering on arrogance, but I don’t apologise for it. So the beginning of the season was the first time I ever questioned myself.”
O’Sullivan, who is now in charge of the US Eagles, also has his say this week with the release of his autobiography, Never Die Wondering.
His often-strained relationships with the likes of Kidney, Warren Gatland and George Hook are all dealt with, and O’Sullivan also talks frankly about the row he had with Dr Liam Hennessy at the 2007 World Cup.
O’Sullivan didn’t take kindly to Hennessy’s arrival at the tournament, telling him to “stay out of the way”.
Hennessy was highly critical of O’Sullivan in the Genesis review of Ireland’s performance at the tournament, claiming he over-trained the team.
While he largely kept his counsel at the time, O’Sullivan now believes Hennessy “hung him out to dry”, and admits the pair haven’t spoken since another row during the 2008 Six Nations.
“I’d had enough,” O’Sullivan writes. “I admit I told Liam to f**k off out of the room and that’s the last time we spoke.”
Meanwhile, further light has also been shed on the frank exchange between the Irish players during a team camp at Enfield last December.
Full-back Rob Kearney questioned why Ireland did not display the same spirit as Munster, something a number of players cite as a key turning point for the squad.
Marcus Horan revealed: “We went out training that day (after the team meeting) and we were strolling back – myself and Donncha (O’Callaghan) and Rob.
“Donncha turned to Rob and said: ‘Look, man, great balls today.’ And I said: ‘Listen, I think you’ve solved a massive problem for this squad. It’s been festering for years and someone needed to say it.’
“It really struck a chord with me. It was something you would have expected from an older guy. But then again, an older guy probably wouldn’t have said it because he’s lived with it for so long.”
Kearney added: “It was taken positively and you do appreciate that. Fair play to the Munster lads – not one person had anything negative to say. It takes character to take that on board and channel it positively.”
Grand Slam – How Ireland Achieved Rugby Greatness in the Players’ Own Words by Alan English is published by Penguin (€25) and Never Die Wondering by Eddie O’Sullivan is published by Century, (€24.99). Both are published this Thursday, September 3.