THE challenge of self-examination and self-revelation wasn’t one Eddie O’Sullivan took on lightly. As ever, he weighed the pros and cons and then he made his call.
“Before I started the book there was some trepidation because I’d be going back to the early part of your life, which nobody knows about, as well as the latter part, which everyone thinks they know everything about.
“But I enjoyed the whole process. It was cathartic to an extent, but I’m not doing the book on the basis that that’s the end of me and I’ll never do anything else. There were some things out there about me that weren’t true, and things can become urban myths if you don’t do something about it. I felt I’d write the book and let people make up their own minds.”
When the time came for O’Sullivan to make up his own mind about stepping down as Ireland coach, he describes it as an easy decision.
“It was a stressful time,” he says of his final days in the hot seat.
“When things are going well it’s great, but when things aren’t it’s pretty awful. You put a huge amount of yourself into the job, heart and soul, and in doing that you drag family and friends with you whether they like it or not.
“When I stepped down one of the factors was that what was happening wasn’t going to help my family for a start, they’d been through a tough time with the World Cup and Six Nations afterwards. The team was being dragged down, so was I, so was the IRFU, so it was an easy enough decision at that point. We’d reached a point where nobody was benefiting.
“I knew it was the right decision, though, because once I’d made it I was at peace with it. I didn’t have any angst or second thoughts – it was like stepping away and realising it was the best decision.”
The morning after, his life had changed. The Youghal man found himself off the treadmill, though he has a rather speedier analogy.
“It was like being in a Formula One car going 100 miles an hour and suddenly stepping out of it and watching everything go by as you stand there. That was strange.
“I thought for a couple of months I was ready to go again if something came up, but nothing came along, and then I realised I needed that time.
“It was intense enough being Irish coach for six and a half years, but I’d had two years before that as assistant (Irish) coach, and three years with the US before that. So I’d been on the treadmill for 11 years, so letting the world go by was good for me, and when the opportunity came up in March with the US the batteries were fully charged and I was raring to go.”
And the energy needed to be replenished, despite people’s misconceptions about the time commitment needed to coach at international level.
“It can seem a great job, ten days a year, maybe eleven in a busy year. People say ‘that’s only ten-eleven weeks work, you’re only busy three months of the year’.
“People would have asked me – genuinely – how my golf was going, they’d have assumed I had plenty of time to play golf, and they’d be horrified to hear that I had maybe played one round at an IRFU outing or whatever.
“There just aren’t enough hours in the day if you’re doing it to best of your ability. And you neglect your family in that time, and unless they buy into it you’re in trouble at home. I was lucky in that my family were 100% behind me.”
Shipping personal criticism was one of the hardest aspects of the job, though O’Sullivan says he had his own way of dealing with it.
“It’s tough,” he says. “It’s a pity but you can’t do anything about it, you have to steel yourself against it.
“I decided there’d be opinions out there, good and bad, right and wrong, but the only opinions I needed to pay attention to were those of the people I respected. It’s easy to say that, but it’s tested at regular intervals and you must have the belief to deal with it.
“And that’s not easy. You find yourself slipping with that. But you must feel you’re doing the best you can with the information you have, you’re giving it your best shot. When I walked away I asked myself if I’d change anything, and I felt I couldn’t with the information I had.
“Had I disappointments? Of course. But no regrets. I never felt I should have done it the other way based on the information I had, though I did feel a picture was spun of me that wasn’t the real me. Friends and family would have been saying to me, ‘if I didn’t know you I’d think you were a terrible guy’.
“I’m not saying I’m a saint but I don’t think the persona put out there was really accurate. Now people can read the book, and maybe they’ll say ‘the picture that was painted of you was the right one’, but I’m happy enough with that.”
He points out that many commentators don’t have all the evidence before them when they pass judgement.
“It’s hard to know everything unless you’re in there. Ray McLoughlin is launching the book for me and for someone who’s out of the game for so long, he has an incredible understanding of the modern game, which isn’t always the case.
“But when people asked him ‘should Eddie do this or that’ he’d always say ‘I haven’t a clue – I’m not in there; the only guys with the facts are the guys in the middle of it’. Journalists are told to give their opinions but it’s hard for them to have all the facts, and I think in the book people will see there were times when certain things weren’t known.”
There were bright days along the way: winning in Twickenham in 2004 was one of the best.
“Girvan Dempsey’s try in the corner after we took them from sideline to sideline ... that was a moment you’d been working on for months, to get the pattern right, and you’d know if they executed it properly they’d score.
“Watching that try unfold until Girvan scored in the corner – and Ben Cohen took him out after it – that was a moment when all the work on the game plan paid off.”
Beating South Africa in Lansdowne Road was another big day.
“Jake White had talked down Irish rugby in the build-up and there was an extraordinary atmosphere in the ground. In the last couple of minutes we were holding a one-score lead but the crowd got louder as the Springboks pounded the line. Axel (Foley) poached a ball and Strings kicked it into the stand, and I thought the roof would come off.
“The final one, obviously, would be England in Croke Park. The pressure going into that, not alone having lost to France, the danger that the occasion would get the better of us, and it was an occasion, no doubt about it.
“It was a game we couldn’t lose under any circumstances, and that’s a lot of pressure. To go out under that pressure and execute so well, and do a job on them ... I remember soaking up the atmosphere after that one.”
THAT was a big win, but usually the margins are super-fine.
“Inches come into it,” says O’Sullivan. “Last season Brian O’Driscoll’s try against Wales brushed the line, and if it hadn’t brushed the line it wouldn’t have been a try. Inches.
“Sometimes when it goes well, as it did against England when we ticked every box, there’s great satisfaction for everybody. Those are the moments. There are other moments, such as giving players bad news, and they mightn’t be headline moments, but you don’t forget them.”
Now it’s America. A different jersey, different grounds, a different level of rugby. But the coach is energised by the challenge.
“Professionalism isn’t about being paid, it’s a state of mind. It’s applying yourself 24/7, 52 weeks of the year to doing your job. What the money does is it gives you the time to do that. The fact that you get a paycheck at the end of the month allows you the time to commit to the sport.
“I now work with probably the best professionals in the world because they don’t get paid. In America. Guys come to camp for a week to prepare for a game, they give up their jobs and aren’t paid, so they’re going through hardship. They’re unbelievably professional even though they’re not getting paid.
“The Irish guys are getting paid – and rightly so, because we can – and commit themselves fully. And in fairness, in my time as assistant coach and head coach, every guy gave 110%.
“It was a huge honour for them to represent their country, just as it was a huge honour for me to be coach. I felt I was representing not just myself but Ireland, and the players all felt exactly the same way.”
Never Die Wondering by Eddie O’Sullivan with Vincent Hogan is published by Century (€24.99).
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