John McKee favourite to come in for Pat Lam

Fiji coach John McKee has emerged as a contender to succeed Pat Lam as Connacht coach.
John McKee favourite to come in for Pat Lam

McKee spent three seasons at the Sportsground as assistant coach over a decade ago and since then has worked in a variety of positions, including stints with David Nucifora in Australia at various levels.

It remains to be seen if McKee, who was in charge of Fiji at the World Cup last year and is contracted to them until after the next tournament in Japan in 2019, can be persuaded to return to Galway.

His good working relationship with Nucifora, his experience of having worked under Stephen Nel and Michael Bradley at the Sportsground, and the fact that his wife Jennifer is from Ballina in Mayo, has strengthened suggestions that he is being sounded out for the position.

The New Zealander came to Connacht in 2002 having worked with AS Montferrand — as Clermont Auvergne were then known — for a couple of seasons. His familiarity with the likes of current Connacht backs coach Conor McPhillips, captain John Muldoon, domestic manager Eric Elwood — all whom he coached — would make the transition easier, while he would also be acquainted with academy manager Nigel Carolan and current forwards coach Jimmy Duffy.

McKee, who also coached Buccaneers during his time in Ireland, left the Sportsground when Elwood was appointed assistant coach to Bradley in 2005, moving initially as head coach to Cornish Pirates and then returning to Australia.

e worked at various age grade and development stages in Australia, often with Nucifora, becoming head coach of Central Coast Rays in the sole Australian championship in 2007.

He worked with the Pacific Islanders and then took on a role with Tonga through to the 2011 World Cup, before resuming work in Australia in developing programmes and the national academy. That led to him being an assistant coach to the Australian U20 side at the Junior World Cup in France in 2013 before moving to Fiji, initially as high-performance manager and then taking over as coach in 2014.

Meanwhile, McPhillips says the province have a number of players to step up following the departure of scrum-half John Cooney. Earlier this week it was announced the 26-year-old Terenure native had signed a two-year contract with Ulster which begins at the end of this season.

Cooney played 27 times for Leinster, and made his European debut in their Champions Cup final win over Ulster in 2012. But he didn’t get adequate game time, behind Ireland internationals Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss, and in 2014-15 moved to Connacht.

The former Gonzaga student has made 30 appearances for Pat Lam’s men and scored eight tries. But with Ireland international Kieran Marmion in top form, and academy graduate Caolin Blade also seeing game time, Cooney set his sights on a move to Ulster.

Les Kiss’ side are parting company with Springbok scrum-half Ruan Pienaar at the end of 2016-17 and Cooney looks an able replacement.

Cooney played his first professional game at out-half in the victory over Zebre last weekend, and has been on place-kicking duty for Connacht recently. He looks the perfect fit for Ulster, but despite losing such a prized asset, McPhillips says Connacht will do fine without him.

“We are happy, obviously Kieran Marmion is playing out of his skin at the moment. Caolin Blade is getting a lot of minutes at a high level and proving he is well able for that level,” said McPhillips. “And we have got guys in the academy, Stephen Kerins played Ireland U20s, Conor Lowndes, and Conor McKeon.

"John has made his decision and we will wish him well but we are happy with our depth at scrum-half and they are really all still pushing each other at the moment. You can see that from the guys’ performances there is no drop off no matter who we play.”

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