It hasn’t been the greatest few months for Ireland’s batch of indigenous coaches, what with the struggles of Anthony Foley’s Munster and Neil Doak’s Ulster, but Nigel Carolan hopes to change that trend.
Carolan spent a decade developing an academy system in Connacht that has been delivering a steady talent stream to the senior ranks and one that has attracted deserved praise and attention.
Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion and Darragh Leader have developed under the guidance of a man who is now pushing new boundaries himself by taking over at the helm of the Irish U20s.
Carolan had turned down other offers to push deeper into the professional game for family reasons. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t ambitious.
“I don’t know whether in Ireland it is a conservatism in that you need a job for life, historically. I have been working in the Academy programme for the last 10 years and I wake up every day and love going to work. It is extremely rewarding. At some stage you just want to challenge yourself as well. Stretch your own boundaries. There’s no point in us saying we want to stretch the players if you don’t want to stretch yourself. So at some stage you have to take that leap of faith.”
His role with the U20s is far from that.
Carolan replaced Mike Ruddock in October following his decision to step down after guiding the team to fourth in the Junior World Cup (JWC) in his fourth season.
He inherits a squad stocked with talent and, thus, one that carries considerable expectation. Eight of last year’s Six Nations squad return, along with three others who featured in the JWC in New Zealand, among them scrum-half Nick McCarthy, out-half Ross Byrne and centre Garry Ringrose.
Not that emulating Ruddock’s last season is the prime objective.
“We’re not going in necessarily focusing on results, and that doesn’t mean we don’t want to win. This team could beat all five of the other nations on any given day. The challenge through the Six Nations is to back it up every week. If we create the right environment where players are making decisions and taking ownership throughout the games then I’m not really worried about results.”
The U20s begin life under Carolan and his coaching team in Italy on Friday week and, whatever about results, the signs are that the side will be worth watching as it goes about its business.
“What we’re trying to do is create players who are adaptive so, whether we’re playing in bad conditions or on a fast track like Donnybrook, the players have to be able to adapt and play a style of rugby relative to the opposition and to the conditions.”
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