u20 Six Nations: Nigel Carolan doctrine all about putting trust in players

January 2015. Nigel Carolan is sitting in the Bective Rangers clubhouse at Donnybrook Stadium explaining his coaching philosophy before the upcoming Six Nations campaign that will be his first in charge and it is a recipe few supporters would refuse.

u20 Six Nations: Nigel Carolan doctrine all about putting trust in players

He speaks about trusting his players, on and off the pitch. His boys will conduct their own opposition analysis before games and the reviews afterwards before presenting their findings back to management. Even their captain, Nick McCarthy, is selected by his peers.

It’s the same on the pitch. The new boss has no interest in players who look over their shoulder at the coaches’ box during a game. “I don’t coach by remote control,” he explains. Clearly, no automatons need apply.

It is a fascinating mission statement in a sport where the role of coaches is seen as so central, their attention to detail so minute. Carolan’s philosophy seems, on the surface, to be different from that of Joe Schmidt whose Ireland side has long carried the tag of one-dimensional.

“That’s a bit disconcerting,” said Schmidt 12 months ago when that accusation was put to him – not for the first time or the last. That was at a press conference prior to the meeting with England and after victories against Italy and France that produced little open rugby.

Schmidt has always railed against that viewpoint. He pointed out at last week’s Six Nations launch in London that New Zealand had kicked as often as Ireland at the last World Cup while Sean O’Brien spoke on Tuesday about the players’ licence to “play it as we see it”. All that may be so but no-one would suggest that Schmidt’s fingerprints are not littered all over his Ireland team. Players may have the scope to improvise but it is within a tightly-controlled framework that is dictated from up high.

Conan O’Donnell knows Carolan well given they both hail from Connacht and the fact that the young prop is one of four players in the current U20 squad who featured under the coach this time last year. His take on Carolan’s approach is interesting.

“I suppose it’s a lot more expansive. We play heads up rugby and we just judge it on the day whereas other teams are really dependent on their structures, which means it’s hard for them to make breaks.

“They’re too focused on what they’re doing,” he said of other sides at the underage level. “Say if someone is not holding the blind, they wouldn’t really go that way because it’s not in the structure.”

Carolan doesn’t advocate Baa Baas rugby but his is a less hands-on approach if nothing else “My philosophy is about trying to empower players and it is not that it is loose. The way we train and how we play is what I would describe as organised but because we are trying to play with tempo and high intensity players have to organise themselves and read where the space is. We are not a patterned team.

“We don’t have designated space to attack so it is up to the players to recognise that and try to exploit it. That’s how we train. Sometimes it works and when it does it is good. When it doesn’t it is maybe accuracy, skill under pressure in a melting pot. That’s the environment they will experience.”

As Schmidt pointed out before, a team’s approach depends on a multiplicity of factors — the quality and skillsets of the players at a coach’s disposal among them — and there is also the need to “earn the right to play”. Carolan’s U20s discovered that last year.

His heads-up approach sounded tailor-made for a squad that boasted a sublime set of backs, among which Garry Ringrose was merely the most illustrious, but Ireland struggled to break even up front and were worn down by the English and Welsh packs as the Six Nations went on. The Junior World Cup was a similar story.

“Frustration was probably the word that would sum up,” said Carolan of the season but he is not for turning.

This year’s batch of U20s will begin their Six Nations campaign tonight against Wales on the fast 4G track at Donnybrook. They boast a pack that is gargantuan by Irish standards and should supply better ball to a back line that is admittedly less stellar than their immediate predecessors. It will make for fascinating viewing.

IRELAND U20 (v Wales, Donnybrook, 7.35pm);

Jack Power (Leinster); Matthew Byrne (Leinster), Shane Daly (Munster), Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster), Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Johnny McPhillips (Ulster), John Poland (Munster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Adam McBurney (Ulster), Conan O’Donnell (Connacht); Peter Claffey (Connacht), James Ryan (Leinster, capt); Cillian Gallagher (Connacht), Will Connors (Leinster), Max Deegan (Leinster)


Shane Fenton (Munster), James Bollard (Leinster), Conor Kenny (Connacht), Sean O’Connor (Munster), Kelvin Brown (Munster), Stephen Kerins (Connacht), Brett Connon (Exile), Conor O’Brien (Leinster)

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