Ryan Byrne/INPHO McKee on the training pitch with the Ireland squad.
making an impact

Former Fiji coach McKee sees bright future for Ireland's young stars

The New Zealander is open to working with the squad beyond his current role on the two-Test tour of Japan.

LAST UPDATE | Aug 23rd 2022, 12:23 PM

SO FAR, JOHN McKee likes what he’s seeing. The former Fiji men’s head coach is currently working with the Ireland women’s squad as technical advisor and forwards coach for their two-Test tour of Japan, a trip which got off to a brilliant start with Saturday’s 57-22 win in Shizuoka.

McKee has called for Ireland to now go one step further by backing that result up in this weekend’s second Test in Tokyo as Greg McWilliams’ squad look to build some more positive momentum on the back of an encouraging couple of weeks for the women’s game in Ireland.

The IRFU recently appointed its first Head of Women’s Performance and Pathways and will hand out professional contracts to women’s 15s players for the first time next season.

On the pitch, Saturday’s nine-try win pushed Ireland up to sixth in the world rankings and McWilliams’ young squad now have a great opportunity to finish an already memorable tour on a high.

And McKee has already made an impact since joining the group, his influence evident in a strong display by the Ireland forward pack last weekend, and the New Zealander says he is open to the idea of working with Ireland beyond the current tour.

McKee led Fiji at two Rugby World Cups and has also worked with both Connacht and Clermont at club level.

“Last year I had worked on a project for World Rugby with Greg McWilliams and we had a little bit of association out of that,” McKee explains.

john-mckee Dan Sheridan / INPHO John McKee (file photo) Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“We also spent some time together when I was at World Rugby at another part of the year. So that was the start of association I guess, and then David Nucifora, I’d known him from my time in Australia and I’d actually worked for the Academy in Australia. At the time he was director of rugby there, out of that I’d an association with David as well that’s sort of how it all came about.

“The initial approach was to be involved through this campaign, both in the preparation in Ireland and during the tour, sort of at two levels really. At one level, assisting and using my experience with the coaching group and with Greg, and the overall programme planning. How they go about their training sessions and reviews, and so forth, also filling in some of the technical gaps.

“As it has turned out, I’ve been working around the lineout area and the breakdown. I’m really enjoying being with the group. The whole backroom staff are really good, they’re a very close group.

Who knows what could happen in the future? I could possibly come back later for the Six Nations, who knows. At the moment we’re just focusing on these games here and helping the team be the best they can be.”

The team certainly did that last weekend, delivering their most complete performance yet since McWilliams succeeded Adam Griggs.

Ireland displayed impressive self-assuredness in overturning an early 15-0 deficit, and played with a confidence and clarity which has previously been missing from their game.

“He’s got a strong background coaching in various environments,” McKee says of McWilliams.

I find him a very thorough coach. He has some innovative ideas around the way he can develop his team and develop their play, certainly taking the view for the Irish women’s game that it’s its own game, not copying it – looking at what the specific strengths are of the Irish women’s players and developing a game style that suits those players.

“Greg has a really good balance between the technical side of leading the programme with a good rapport across the management group and the players. From my perspective he’s making a very good fist of it.”

McWilliams has been keen to develop his squad depth and blood new talent, handing out six new caps in Saturday’s first Test – including Tullow out-half Dannah O’Brien, who was one of the stand-out performers on the day.

“I don’t want to put pressure on young players by comparing them to great players of the past,” McKee continues.

dannah-obrien-kicks-past Akito Iwamoto / INPHO Dannah O'Brien. Akito Iwamoto / INPHO / INPHO

“Looking at this group and probably Dannah in particular as an out-half, she looks as though she could have a fine future ahead of her. She was quite calm and collected under pressure in that game on the weekend. 

“I’m sure she’ll admit herself that she’s still got things to learn. She’s gotten off to a good start, but she’s certainly a girl that keeps her feet on the ground and doesn’t get too carried away about things. She’ll be focusing on the basics of her performance this week to make sure that she can back it up.

“She’s 18 and she’s got some real talent. As with a lot of 18-year-olds, she’s got some very good skills and that’s a credit to the programmes and pathways she’s come through and the coaches she’s had. 

“This level is quite a step up… She’s not the complete package yet. But for me, in the short time I’ve known her, I can see what a hard worker she is and would have full confidence she will apply herself in whatever programme she’s in to put herself in the best position to be the best player she can be. 

“Dannah would be a classic example probably of a player who would benefit enormously as the programme expands and as these (professional) contracts become available, I would imagine that her name would be pretty high on the list when they are looking at who to contract.”  

In Shizuoka, Ireland were led brilliantly by captain Nichola Fryday, and McKee says the 27-year-old’s influence has been central to getting the best out of Ireland’s rising young stars.

“As well as being one of the more experienced players as captain of this team, for me she’s showed strong leadership in demanding high standards around the group in terms of their preparation, which is outstanding. She really drives that side of the game.

“I think it’s just her general drive around the group and demanding high standards, which is really one of the things that has impressed me about this group. I think it’s really helped this group come on and come together so closely for this tour.”

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