The decorated duo worked together at the US Eagles and Connacht, but have rarely seen eye-to-eye since Hook’s move into broadcasting, and the TV and radio pundit pulled no punches with some of the accusations he levelled at O’Sullivan.
Stung by revelations in O’Sullivan’s recently-published book, Never Die Wondering, Hook invited O’Sullivan to defend his claims on his Newstalk drivetime show, The Right Hook, in front of a live studio audience at the University of Limerick.
The Youghal native accepted the challenge and addressed claims the deterioration of O’Sullivan’s relationships with Liam Hennessy, Warren Gatland, Declan Kidney and Hook himself suggested he was “compartmentalised” and “doesn’t need other people”.
O’Sullivan replied: “Maybe that’s true. There are places in the book where I fell out with people. Maybe I’m a bit stand-offish like that in relationships – but I do have some friends in the world.”
Hook couldn’t resist a dig in reply, claiming he was “delighted to hear that – I just didn’t find any of them in the book”. O’Sullivan, nonetheless, appeared to enjoy the challenge of facing down Hook – who admitted he’d “been waiting a long time for this” – and rallied against the public perception of him as being “dour, with no sense of humour, a control freak”.
“That was a primary motivation (behind writing the book), there was a bit of a caricature out there about me,” O’Sullivan explained.
“You can see how it would come about, people see you when you’re working, you’re under pressure and in a difficult place but at the end of the day I felt that was probably pushed out a little bit too much. There are other sides to me that people don’t know about. So the book was an opportunity to put them out.”
O’Sullivan also explained that being sent to a seminary in Dublin at the age of 13 helped him “learn to conceal his emotions” in his dealings with the media during his six-year tenure as Ireland coach.
“When (I was) in the public eye as a rugby coach, I had those skills available to me to protect my personal life and my emotional side,” he admitted.
“Maybe I was that cold guy in the eye of the public because that was the perception. I don’t think I’m that cold – I’m not the jolliest guy in the world, but I think there’s another side to me that people don’t see.”
Hook inevitably steered O’Sullivan towards the elements in the book he had personal issues with, even questioning the book’s overall accuracy, and quizzed him on how he dealt with Hook’s battles with depression, which are detailed in his own autobiography.
O’Sullivan replied: “The difficulty was you struggled at times with the job, and with things piling up on top of you. I witnessed that a couple of times, I tried to help you as best I could, but I suppose in a working relationship when you were struggling it wasn’t easy. But I just tried to get on with the job.”
Asked if a change at the top was the difference between Ireland’s near-misses in their quest for a Grand Slam before finally achieving the feat under Declan Kidney, O’Sullivan provided a forthright answer.
“Declan delivered the Grand Slam, so you’d have to say yeah. There was a Grand Slam in that team and he got them there and credit to him for doing that, which I failed to do.”
He also hit back at the trio of Munster forwards – Paul O’Connell, Jerry Flannery and Denis Leamy – who recently bemoaned his backs-oriented game-plans, accusing them of “selective memory”, adding he envisaged coaching in Ireland again, which set Hook up for a big finale.
“You were, and probably still are, one of the best coaches in the world. You are a major loss to Irish rugby. However, I reserve the right, if you ever come back, to call it as it is, and you’ll just have to grow a thicker skin really.”
O’Sullivan’s retorted with a smile: “I guess I’ll try and do that for you.”