Eddie O’Sullivan curls a smile and offers a bald, one-word answer when asked to sum up his experiences of Rugby World Cups.
“Nauseous,” he says.
The man from Youghal spent six-and-a-half years as Ireland head coach. Though his stint curdled towards resignation in 2008, O’Sullivan finished up with the best win-loss ratio of any previous Irish head coach at the time. There was no Six Nations Championship or Grand Slam on his watch but he delivered three Triple Crowns and accelerated the upward directory begun by Warren Gatland.
Yet his tenure has been soured by a handful of defeats.
“It’s the world stage and you spend four years getting ready for it, so you are measured on that,” says O’Sullivan who is on punditry duties for RTÉ for this tournament. “The irony of all this for Joe Schmidt, who has been the most successful Irish coach and ticked every box over the last years, is that if the World Cup went wrong he would be remembered for that. It’s unfortunate but it is a reality.
“We have been so successful in the Six Nations but, if you go back, there was a time when we would celebrate if we won two matches. Now if you win only two you would probably get fired. So that means that we have moved our focus onto the World Cup and do something on that stage and that brings its own pressure.”
The disaster that was 2007 has been dissected ad nauseum. Far more interesting are his experiences in 2003 in Australia, and eight years later in New Zealand, with the USA. Both paint a more nuanced picture than the triumph or disaster version.
O’Sullivan reiterates the point made by Shane Horgan in these pages yesterday that the ‘03 tournament was a positive experience. The team base in Terrigal was ideal and the side came within a whisker of defeating the hosts in Melbourne. David Humphreys still doesn’t know how that last-ditch drop goal attempt curled wide. The quarter-final against France began disastrously. It was game was over by the time the second quarter kicked in but, while disappointing, the pinch point had come at the Adelaide Oval a few weeks earlier when, as Alan Quinlan likes to say, his try against Argentina ‘saved’ Irish rugby after the disaster of Lens four years before.
It certainly helped keep O’Sullivan in his job, just 18 months after taking charge - as did Girvan Dempsey’s last-gasp tackle when he dumped an Argentinian winger into the advertising hoardings with the clock already in the red. O’Sullivan recalls it all with a clarity borne of the high stakes and the trickle-down effect it all had on those closest to him.
“I used to ring home after the games to talk to the kids and I would always go out to the middle of the pitch because you would get a signal and there would be nobody in the stadium. I rang home and was talking to my daughter and then I asked to talk to my son and she just said that he had gone to bed with a migraine he was so stressed. He was ten. If we had lost that day I was toast.”
By 2011, O’Sullivan was head coach with the Eagles which brought pressures of a very different kind. The Americans had no more than three full-time pros in Chris Wyles who was with Saracens, Newcastle’s Mike McDonald and Takudzwa Ngwenya, who was on the books with Biarritz. The rest were holding down bar jobs or giving up jobs just to make it to a World Cup. Their campaign, as fate would have it, started with a game against Ireland in New Plymouth. It fell ten years to the day since the 9/11 attack. O’Sullivan had players in his squad and on his staff who had lost friends in the atrocity, among them a member of the New York Athletic Club’s rugby team whose brother flew out to New Zealand to take in the game.
“It was a very emotional game and my worry was that ... We had a memorial service that morning in New Plymouth and we had the Marines there as well. It was very formal. We had the US ambassador as well and the game that night, so there was a huge amount of emotion and the lads went out to play Ireland knowing that on a bad day they could put 50 or 60 points on them.”
The Eagles did the occasion justice, restricting Ireland to a 22-10 win before accounting for Russia four days later. O’Sullivan courted some controversy by making sweeping changes for the game against Australia on the grounds that players had made such sacrifices to be there and deserved some game time and then a 27-10 loss to Italy brought their campaign to a close.
O’Sullivan enjoyed 2011, and he can look back with some satisfaction at 2003, but 2007 overshadows all that. It bothers him still that two losses, to France and Argentina, have tainted his time in charge while conceding that his team played “like a horse’s ass” in France that year. It’s not a narrative he wants written again.
“Getting Ireland to a point of consistency where we are always in with a shout, always capable of beating teams and always going to be there or thereabouts: that’s where we aim to be. You can’t win every match. Every four years you get this chance and, for our own psyche, we probably need to get past a quarter-final but Joe’s got a tough road.”