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'If you look at the Irish market, there's only five jobs if you include the national team'

Michael Bradley is in his third season as head coach of Italian club Zebre.

THE LIMITED OPPORTUNITIES on home soil mean that any Irish rugby coach with professional aspirations has to accept the fact that their line of work could well mean moving abroad.

Michael Bradley, the former Munster and Ireland scrum-half, is one good example, with his three most recent jobs bringing him to Scotland, Georgia, and Italy.

“You know it could be a reality,” says the 57-year-old Zebre boss. “If you look at the Irish market, there’s only five jobs if you include the national team, so if you’re a professional coach you have to accept that you will have to travel.”

michael-bradley Bradley has been in charge of Zebre since 2017. Source: Frikkie Kapp/INPHO

There are many Irishmen who have ventured abroad before and after Bradley to pursue their rugby craft, some more high-profile than others. 

Bradley worked closely with Conor O’Shea in recent years until the latter’s recent resignation from the Italy job post-World Cup. Former Ireland centre Mark McCall has been hugely successful in charge of Saracens. 2009 Grand Slam-winning coach Declan Kidney is now in charge of ambitious London Irish in the Premiership.

There’s Jeremy Davidson impressing as boss of Brive in the Top 14, while Mike Prendergast is making an impact as attack coach of Racing 92 after spells with Grenoble and Oyonnax. Back in England, former Ireland fullback Girvan Dempsey is Bath’s attack coach, while ex-Munster man Ian Costello is in charge of Wasps’ defence.

Connacht men John Muldoon and Conor McPhillips are now with Bristol under Pat Lam, David Humphreys is the director of rugby in Gloucester, Geordan Murphy is the head coach of Leicester, and Neil Doak guides Worcester’s attack.

There is an Irish influence in the US too, with Greg McWilliams taking over as boss at Rugby United New York after being at the World Cup as the Eagles’ attack coach. And there are more Irishmen out there in the coaching sphere.

While some would naturally prefer to remain at home to coach, Bradley sees moving around the rugby world as a positive.

“It’s good because you experience different challenges and cultures and different ways of trying to solve problems and progress teams. It’s all different in different countries. As an experience, it’s been fantastic. You have to realise that you will have to move.”

A member of the 1985 Triple Crown-winning Ireland team, Bradley always had a keen interest in moving into coaching after finishing his playing days and his first permanent professional club gig with Connacht ended up lasting for seven years until 2010.

michael-bradley-talks-to-shane-horga-rob-kearney-and-tommy-bowe Bradley with Shane Horgan, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe in 2008. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He also had a brief stint as interim head coach of Ireland before Declan Kidney took over, leading the national team on their 2008 tour of New Zealand and Australia, playing a Test in each of those countries.

He moved on from Connacht in 2010 and, having had applications for jobs at other Irish provinces turned down at various points, realised that shifting his career abroad made sense. 

There was a brief stint with Georgia in 2011, organised through World Rugby, before he successfully applied for the Edinburgh head coaching role and took over the Scottish outfit, leading them into the 2012 Heineken Cup semi-finals.

The Scots weren’t able to build on that success in 2012/13, however, and his contract expired, leading to him taking up a full-time role as an assistant coach to Milton Haig with Georgia for three years that included the 2015 World Cup.

“Georgia are the best Tier 2 team in Europe, so the expectation is that you win every match,” says Bradley of that role. “Luckily, when I was involved, they always won the Rugby Europe Championship, which is under the Six Nations.

“When they’ve come up against Tier 1 nations, Georgia have struggled because of the speed at which the game is played at that level. You had to process that and explain to the players that what they did at one level wouldn’t necessarily work at the next level.

“The experience from a cultural point of view was fantastic – they’re really nice people and they really love rugby, they’re very passionate about it. The country is a similar size and population to Ireland and they’re catching up with the soccer too, they’re getting amazing traction on that.”

Bradley was keen to return to head coaching and the opportunity that opened up in Zebre in 2017 was an ideal one, particularly as he knew O’Shea, as well as the Italian federation’s head of technical direction, Steven Aboud, formerly of the IRFU.

michael-bradley-during-the-post-match-press-conference Bradley has pushed Zebre to play more adventurous rugby. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

“That was good for me because I knew people who were in the right positions in the organisation so it made it an easier transition for me, to be honest,” says Bradley.

“Italy as a country is fantastic, every day is different and you can experience food, drink, culture, and history depending on which direction you turn.

“Rugby-wise, the game is not as high-profile in Italy as, say, Georgia, so there’s a bit of a fight there to get space in the media and to create excitement around the event. In Ireland, there’s a big advantage there because of the history.

“The game is over 100 years old in Italy, but its visibility is not high. There are patches and Treviso is a good example, so is Padova – they’re strong rugby cities where the soccer team wouldn’t be the strongest.

“The reverse is true in Rome or even Milan, where they don’t have a Top 12 team. So your Cork Cons, Lansdownes, Ballymenas, they’re not at the higher level. For the game to grow… Milan is huge, there are nearly more people in the Milan greater area than in all of Ireland, so there’s a big area to tap into.

“The underage area is fascinating. Italy’s figures in underage rugby are very, very strong but it’s just the ability to convert those and hold them in the game that’s a challenge at the moment.”

Bradley’s central focus has been on Zebre, of course, as he has pushed the Parma-based outfit to play a high-tempo, skills-focused brand of rugby.

In the last two seasons, Zebre have thrown more offloads than anyone in the Guinness Pro14, underlining their ambition, but have also finished bottom of their conference in both campaigns, as well starting the current season poorly.

michael-bradley Bradley brought Edinburgh into the Pro14 semi-finals in 2012. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We will continuously work in terms of the style of play that we have identified and developed,” says Bradley of their tactical approach.

“We’ll keep working there because I believe that in the big picture, Zebre isn’t going to have a strong, dominant pack. We’re one of two teams and we have to supply the national side, so it’s a once-in-a-generation, rotation of 20 years, where you could have a really dominant pack.

“At the moment, that’s not the case so you have to be able to win games another way. That’s why we insist on trying to play the way, but it’s risky. It’s enjoyable as well.”

He says the signing of Irish locks Ian Nagle and Mick Kearney this season has helped notably with Zebre’s scrummaging and maul defence, and he hopes to see his team beginning to take more of the chances they have been creating.

Bradley is content with life in Italy for now, although he would always listen with interest if there was a chance to return home.

“The immediate future will be in Italy. If another opportunity comes up elsewhere, you have to keep all your options open. I’m enjoying the experience in Italy and my family are enjoying it as well so there’s no reason to consider anything else right now. 

“If it [moving back to Ireland] happens, fine. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

“I could be in worse places in the world.”

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Murray Kinsella

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