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'Winning is not our primary focus' - Carolan drives development with Ireland U20s

The Connacht academy manager outlines the philosophy that will shape his Ireland U20s team.

Carolan takes over the Ireland U20s with a fine coaching reputation.
Carolan takes over the Ireland U20s with a fine coaching reputation.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

WE LIVE IN a process-obsessed age of professional rugby, where coaches are increasingly of the belief that the score will take care of itself as long as the environment and preparation driving their team is of the highest possible quality.

But how prevalent is that attitude in underage rugby, where perhaps there is the greatest need for a concentration on the development of players rather than a win-at-all-costs mentality?

Does a focus on improving the component parts of players’ abilities – rather than on winning – breed losers? Does a primary goal of winning mean that coaches send their youthful players onto the pitch with game plans that limit their potential to develop?

There is an ideal balance, and the Ireland Under-20s will hope to find it under new head coach Nigel Carolan this season. Less than two weeks before his team open their Six Nations campaign away to Italy, the Connacht man admits that winning is not the sole objective at this level.

“I think we’ll only ever be judged on whether we win or lose, which is maybe a factor of how successful the Ireland U20s have been,” says Carolan, “but that’s not our primary focus.”

We’re doing a lot of things outside of that in terms of player development, trying to create a new environment, a culture that really stretches the players.

“Are we going to win? The intention is to go and win every game, I think we have the ability to win every game. In a Six Nations, the challenge is can you win five games back-to-back? It’s a huge challenge, but I think we have the potential to win every game on any given day.

“But it’s not going to be our primary focus going into this campaign.”

Nigel Carolan speaks to his team Carolan with his Ireland U20 side. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

One trusts that Carolan knows exactly what he is talking about, given his track record in terms of developing players. He has been in charge of Connacht’s academy since 2004 and the likes of Kieran Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and many others have burst into the professional game under his watch.

Carolan has been involved with the Ireland U20s as an assistant coach on a number of occasions in the last decade too, while he has also turned down a handful of opportunities to move into the professional game as they “didn’t feel right at the time.”

This is a man with an ever-growing reputation in the Irish coaching sphere, meaning he was the ideal candidate to replace the departed Mike Ruddock. Carolan will continue his role as Connacht’s academy manager alongside his position with the Ireland U20s and says there is some overlap in the duties.

When we sat down at the start of this campaign, we said ‘what’s the objective?’” explains Carolan.

“If there’s an objective of the academy programme, it’s about bringing players through to the professional game. We established that the objective of the Ireland U20s is the same thing, it’s about confirming players for the next level.

“It’s just a different platform. So we very much see this as an extension of the academy programme. The players that we have selected are the players that we view as having the potential to make it in the pro game.”

How exactly does Carolan go about ensuring that these young men do advance onto senior contracts in the coming years, if not by focusing primarily on winning the U20 Six Nations and next summer’s Junior World Championship in Italy?

Along with his assistant coaches Colin McEntee, John Fogarty and Steve Aboud, Carolan is insistent that the Irish backroom team will not spoon feed their players. This is very much going to be an U20 group that teaches themselves many of the essential components of the game.

Lorcan Dow, Nick McCarthy, Nigel Carolan and Rory Moloney Carolan with Lorcan Dow, captain Nick McCarthy and Rory Moloney. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’re doing things both on and off the field where the players have to be the decision makers,” outlines Carolan.

“They’ve got to do their own reviews, they’ve got to do opposition analysis and present it back to the management team. They’ve got to present game plans to the rest of the group. We have a leadership group within the squad, we also have a strategic group, and they’ll be actively involved every week. They’re going to change every week too.

“The intention then is that the coaches will facilitate a lot of the work earlier in the week, but we hope that later in the week we’ll step back and let the players take over.

“The primary focus there is that in the game, they actually don’t have to look up to the stand and say ‘what do you want us to do next?’ They have a menu of options and they’ve got to decide among themselves, and then use the benefit of hindsight to decide whether it was the right option or not.

So for us, it’s a huge trust element. We have to try and facilitate that environment, we have to be patient in that environment, we have to allow for mistakes because I think that’s where you’re going to learn.”

Carolan admits this player-led process will involve much adaptation for all involved, but this is seen as the best way to help Ireland’s best U20 players to develop the edge they need to push into professional rugby.

Alongside that, the Connacht man is firmly of the belief that he and his technically astute coaching team can drive the players individually in the core skills of the game.

McEntee is a line-out specialist, Fogarty will work the scrum and throwing, while Aboud is the head of technical direction over the entire IRFU. Carolan’s specialty skills coaching is highly regarded too, meaning this crop of U20s are in good hands.

John Fogarty, Nigel Carolan and Colin McEntee John Fogarty, Carolan and Colin McEntee. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I’m big on individual skills and I think it’s a mantra we’ve had coming into the campaign,” says Carolan. “Just do the simple things really, really well.

“With the style of rugby, expect to see something quite simple, it’s not complicated. Hopefully if we play with intensity, tempo, all players involved equally and hopefully it’s the players who will make the decision whether to play the ground game or whether to play through the foot.”

With players of rich promise such as last year’s World Rugby Junior Player of the Year nominee Garry Ringrose, captain Nick McCarthy, Connacht back row Rory Moloney, Ulster back Jack Owens and out-half Ross Byrne involved, this group looks in good shape.

Most encouraging for Carolan has been the manner in which his players have bought into the culture he’s looking to build.

There’s a lot of reputation and a lot of players have been involved before, last year,” says Carolan.

“I’m only judging them on how I currently see them and they’re a really, really proactive group. The attitude is really, really good. The systems that we’ve brought in, they’ve really bought into.

“We see a lot of potential within the group and for us, it’s about trying to provide the environment where they can realise that potential. I think there are a lot of really good players for the future in this group. We’ll see what we can do with them.”

30-man Ireland squad for U20 Six Nations:

Props: Michael Lagan (Ballymena/Ulster), Conan O’Donnell (Sligo/Connacht), Oisin Heffernan (Terenure/Leinster)*, Jeremy Lougman (UCD/Leinster)

Hookers: Zac McCall (Queens University/Ulster), Sean McNulty (UCD/Munster)*

Locks: Jack Dwan (Leinster), Josh Murphy (UCD/Leinster)*, David O’Connor (St. Mary’s/Leinster), Cian Romaine (Buccaneers/Connacht), Alexander Thompson (Queens University/Ulster)

Back rows: Lorcan Dow (Queens/Ulster), Stephen McVeigh (Buccaneers/Connacht), Rory Moloney (Buccaneers/Connacht)*, Conor Oliver (St. Mary’s/Leinster), Nick Timoney (St. Mary’s/Leinster)

Half-backs: Jack Cullen (Shannon /Munster)*, Nicolas McCarthy (UCD/Leinster)*, Ross Byrne (UCD RFC/ Leinster)*, Joey Carbery (UCD/ Leinster)

Centres: Samuel Arnold (Ballynahinch/Ulster), Harrison Brewer (Terenure/ Leinster)*, Fergal Cleary (Lansdowne / Leinster), Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster)*, Jacob Stockdale (Queens University/Ulster)

Back threes: Billy Dardis (UCD/Leinster)*, Stephen Fitzgerald (Shannon/ Munster), Ciaran Gaffney (Galwegians/Connacht)*, Greg O’Shea (Shannon/Munster), Jack Owens (Queens University/Ulster).

* denotes previous involvement at Ireland U20s level.

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Murray Kinsella

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