'My hope is that the door would be open in Connacht at some stage'

Nigel Carolan has taken on a new challenge as attack coach for the Glasgow Warriors.

Carolan has settled in quickly with Glasgow.
Carolan has settled in quickly with Glasgow.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

WHEN THE CAROLAN family were briefly back in Ireland in August for nine-year-old Ben’s twice-delayed communion, he turned to his parents and asked when they would all be “heading home” to Glasgow again.

For his father, Nigel, it was the perfect sign that Ben was settling in well after their move to Scotland earlier in the summer.

Connacht legend Carolan left his role as attack coach with his native province at the end of last season, concluding a spell of almost 26 years playing and coaching there. He’s now in charge of attack at Glasgow Warriors.

Ben and his 11-year-old sister, Milly, are up and running in their new school, while Nigel and his wife, Siobhan, are enjoying their new house 10 minutes outside the city centre – a little like their previous home in Oranmore.

A happy family means Carolan has been able to get stuck into his new job, which he has adapted to fairly seamlessly.

“Rugby is rugby, whether it’s in Galway or Glasgow or wherever,” says 46-year-old Carolan, who played for Connacht in the early years of professionalism but was forced to retire through injury in 2000.

He was soon coaching the province’s young players and acted as academy manager all the way through to 2017 when he was promoted into Andy Friend’s senior coaching staff.

Last season, Carolan knew it was time to look elsewhere, get out of his comfort zone, and learn from different coaches, a different environment, and different players.

“I’d always said that this was part of the plan. I didn’t want to be a one-club coach.”

Carolan recalls being at a Six Nations coaching conference where he met Kevin Bowring, the ex-Wales international who was then with the RFU, and they discussed a “four years plus or minus two” rule for coaches.

nigel-carolan Carolan is a popular figure in Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“You need at least two years in a role – the first to lay a foundation and the second to build on that,” explains Carolan.

“If things are going ok, you go again for another two-year term and if it’s going really well, maybe do another two, but then it’s probably time to change the way you’re thinking or change your players.”

Four years with the Connacht senior team and Carolan was ready to make a move, not that he sees this as the end of the love affair. As Jack Carty told him, it wasn’t goodbye, just farewell for now.

“My hope is that the door would be open in Connacht at some stage and I feel I’m young enough to get the experience to actually open my eyes,” says Carolan.

Having done excellent work throughout his time in Connacht and also guided the Ireland U20s to a World Championship final in 2016, Carolan wasn’t without options.

He had an offer from a Premiership club and other possibilities but Glasgow’s approach was hard to ignore. Winners of the Pro14 back in 2015, the Warriors are rebuilding under head coach Danny Wilson, with former skipper Alastair Kellock now serving as managing director as the club looks to build stronger connections with the community in Glasgow.

Carolan has been impressed with their ambition, highlighting how they are targetting some big signings in the coming years.

“When you hear some of the names, you really understand just how ambitious Glasgow are about pushing this club on again,” he says.

Wilson has given Carolan total responsibility for the attack, which has always been a big part of the club’s identity.

“I always liked what they were about ever since Gregor Townsend was here, then Dave Rennie, I always liked their ambition,” says Carolan.

nigel-carolan-dejected Carolan led the Ireland U20s to a World Cup final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“There is a really strong rugby identity here so I’m trying to tap into that and figure out where it comes from.”

Building relationships with a new group of players has been the most interesting part for Carolan, who knew so many of the Connacht squad from their academy days, as he sets about bringing more balance to Glasgow’s tactical approach.

In aiming for an unpredictable attack, Carolan has pushed them to identify kick space – as well as space to run the ball into – and implemented very clear elements in terms of their ‘big rocks.’

“Firstly, it’s the speed to set, getting off the ground and getting into position – things like reloading on a shortside in a position where you can be effective again,” explains Carolan.

“The second part is building connections constantly, so there are connections on the shortside, connections between the forward pods, connections out the back and in the width – and everyone looking for the space right in front of their nose. 

“The third thing is ‘rolling onto the ball’. We don’t talk about depth, we just talk about every time we carry, just roll onto the ball. It’s not about getting deeper – as long as you receive the ball and you’re not static, you’re rolling onto it. Then you can use some footwork, see some pictures.”

Glasgow’s players have embraced the clarity, with Carolan praising their enthusiasm and drive to improve. Stalwarts like Ryan Wilson and Fraser Brown have been among the most open-minded.

Carolan says he would definitely consider any possible head coaching roles down the road but he relishes running the attack side of the game for now.

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“There’s so much to it,” he says with notable enthusiasm. “I enjoy the intricacies of it and trying to find ways of breaking down the defence.”

Carolan counts himself fortunate to have learned from some excellent coaches during his time in rugby.

nigel-carolan-7111998 Carolan playing for Connacht in 1998. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Eric Elwood’s dedication, drive, and commitment left a mark, Pat Lam’s microscopic level of detail was unique, Andy Friend was “brilliant” in giving Carolan responsibility, and Michael Bradley had a level-headedness that impressed.

Carolan looks back to the 1990s to highlight the coach who made the biggest impression on him as a player: Warren Gatland.

“His man-management of the players is something I still carry with me. It was a soft approach, it was personal, it was always, ‘Nige, this is what you do well, and if you could also do this, the team would be even better for it.’

“He used to roll up behind you at training, have a couple of words, then disappear, and soon he’d be having a word with someone else.”

Carolan has taken bits from each coach’s approach but has his own philosophy now and is enjoying seeing Glasgow’s players figuring things out, “feeling the flow” of games, and asking questions of defences.

Glasgow have started the United Rugby Championship season solidly, losing narrowly away to Ulster, beating the Sharks at home with a bonus point, then edging past the Lions last weekend with a controversial try. This weekend, they face Zebre in Parma.

Of course, there is a clash with Connacht to come too. As the URC’s provisional fixture list changed a few times ahead of the season, Carolan constantly kept an eye on the Connacht game.

“Did I what!” he says with a laugh.

He will be welcomed back to the Sportsground on 29 January with great warmth and affection.

It would be no surprise if he’s welcomed back permanently at some point further down the line.

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Murray Kinsella

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