Eddie O'Sullivan is already confirmed as Sir Clive Woodward's right-hand man for the Lions tour this summer.
Eddie O'Sullivan is already confirmed as Sir Clive Woodward's right-hand man for the Lions tour this summer. The hard-working Ireland coach, who will have charge of the Test team, would dearly love to board the plane to New Zealand with a Six Nations title, and perhaps that so-long-awaited Grand Slam, in his hand luggage. Like Woodward, O'Sullivan will not spare a scintilla of effort in pursuit of his goals.
O'Sullivan and Woodward go back a fair way. They met on Valentine's Day 1997 as coaches at international Under-21 level, when O'Sullivan's team beat Woodward's 28-27. Both are men of their time, with a single-minded belief in the need for specialists in every aspect of prepa-ration. If anything, according to one of O'Sullivan's mentors, the Irishman is more accomplished than his boss-to-be.
"Eddie scores very highly as both a manager and a coach," said George Hook, "which in world terms, no one, including Woodward, can match." Hook, now a rugby writer and broadcaster, had O'Sullivan as his assistant when he was coach to Connacht at the start of the 1990s. It was a decade of utter paucity for Ireland's Test team, but one in which O'Sullivan, an honours degree graduate in physical education, maths and science, painstakingly learned the coaching ropes.
When Hook moved to London Irish, for their first season in England's top division in 1991-92, he flew O'Sullivan over to take sessions with the backs at Sunbury. "We had four backs in the Ireland World Cup side," recalled the Exiles' team manager, Kieran McCarthy. "Three of them - Simon Geoghegan, Jim Staples and David Curtis - played for Connacht and recommended Eddie. They really rated him for his innovative ideas."
Hook later moved to the USA, and O'Sullivan followed. The arrangement culminated in the 1999 World Cup, when O'Sullivan was a prophet in his own land, coaching the Eagles in a pool based in Ireland. The Americans liked him, and O'Sullivan was on the point of moving his wife and two children to San Francisco, when the Irish RFU snapped him up as assistant to the then Ireland coach, Warren Gatland. By the 2002 Championship, O'Sullivan was in charge.
"Eddie's as proficient coaching forwards as he is backs, which is unusual," said Hook. "With his graduate background, he can talk one on one with all the fitness and medical experts. And he's an organiser par excellence.
"It's no accident that Ireland are coming into this Six Nations with only one injury - Keith Gleeson, who broke a leg in a training accident. Eddie put together the player- management programme and stood firm in early-season when provincial coaches were complaining about not having their players."
As with Woodward, many of O'Sullivan's practices seem like stating the obvious, but still it needs authority to make them stick. On a World Cup qualifying trip to Siberia, he had the players doing stretches in a Moscow airport. To sharpen up training, he used ear-splitting klaxons to signify the change of disciplines.
Paul O'Connell, the Munster second-row, is rated by many as the world's outstanding line-out technician. "If you were at the video-analysis session I did with [O'Sullivan's appointee] Mervyn Murphy," O'Connell said last week, "you would probably think I was the worst player in the world, he can find so many faults with my game."
O'Sullivan, who managed a solitary B cap in a modest playing career as a wing and fly-half, has proved a master at making brave decisions. He gave Brian O'Driscoll the captaincy when the No 8, Anthony Foley, was the more conservative choice. Tellingly, when the squad for this after-noon's match in Rome was announced, the discarded Alan Quinlan was the first to shake the hand of the new openside flanker, Denis Leamy; ditto Girvan Dempsey to Geordan Murphy over the full-back position. O'Sullivan has also had some luck, with Gordon D'Arcy's brilliant transition to the centre last season.
"You know, with professionalism," said Hook, "players are fitter, faster, stronger - and more disloyal. Whether they like Eddie or not, the players turn round and say, 'We're going to be better off with this guy - we've got a better chance of winning games with him'. People underestimate Eddie, but he has always said, 'I don't want to be liked, I want to be respected'."
The respect will go through the roof if O'Sullivan follows up his third place and two seconds with a first Ireland title since 1985. And, of course, there are the thick cobwebs gathered on the Grand Slam of 1948 to blow away.
England and France will visit Dublin within the space of 14 days - potentially a fortnight to go down in folklore, though Ireland have managed this particular win double only six times out of a possible 29 since the war. The 1948 Slam included away victories at Twickenham and Stade Colombes.
"This is the strongest squad that we have had together," O'Sullivan said. "Up until now we've always gone into a competition or series of matches without someone.
"There is an element of pressure but we have to live with it on the back of our performances."
Leamy, at 6ft 2in to the dropped Johnny O'Connor's 5ft 11in, will be asked to deal with Italy where they are strongest, in the back row. O'Driscoll and D'Arcy face a muscular confrontation at centre with Gonzalo Canale and Andrea Masi.
At fly-half, Ronan O'Gara is rumoured to have a lot to do to convince Woodward of his Lions credentials. The same, though, cannot be said of Eddie O'Sullivan.Reuse content