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Connacht call can wait as Carolan drives U20s to 'perfect the simple things'
“The players still have the power to make decisions within the parameters, but there’s less of a menu to select from.”

AS IF TO underline the disjointed nature of international under age rugby, head coach Nigel Carolan was among the few in an IRFU track suit after gathering his squad yesterday.

The players filtered in to the Sandymount Hotel from training in provincial gear; purple Munster tops, the navy of Leinster, the red-lined Ulster jackets and dark green of Connacht. After a quick lunch it was time for a physical as well as mental colour swap. Out with the provincial banners, and all in under the IRFU badge.

Carolan’s squad bears only three members of the group which lost out in the final of last summer’s U20 World Championship – by beating New Zealand along the way.

The balance of the team is altered somewhat, the domineering presence of James Ryan and Andrew Porter last year will be replaced by a pack that must be more agile, with the focus of Irish attacks left to a back-line with an exciting “x-factor”.

However, the target of developing players and letting them take another step towards the professional grade remain unchanged.

I think there’s a core of really good guys there. If we can get the ball off the forwards, they can do some real damage.”

“Over the next few days it’s about building some team cohesion and enabling guys to get battle-hardened in all the sessions we have so we can really go at it,” says Carolan.

“Last year I felt we went into the first (Six Nations) game a little bit cold and I felt we lacked that sort of cohesion and togetherness. So that’s the focus these two days and particularly Monday, Tuesday when we name the side.”

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Nigel Carolan Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Last summer was an undoubted high point in Carolan’s regime in charge at this grade. Results in the spring tournaments have been hard-won, but now going into his third Six Nations, Carolan feels he has settled into a rhythm at the helm of team with precious little continuity.

“We’ve realised that less is more. We have our own sort of mantra as a team from the start: ‘the simple things done brilliantly.’

We’ve pared everything right back and tried to simplify everything. The players still have the power to make decisions within the parameters, but there’s less of a menu to select from. That stood us well through the World Cup last year.

I think we’re a better team when we’ve got less things to focus on. Particularly this year (the focus is) around our collisions and collision skills – our tackle, ball-carrying and our breakdown.

“We’ve seen over the last two years that’s when the difference is made in the games, it’s not the fancy moves or plays. It’s in the individual, how he carries himself and how he copes with the level of physicality.

“His lungs are burning in an international pressure-cooker, it’s a big step up for these guys, but if he can deal with that (collision skills) everything else seems to flow from that.”

In Ulster out-half Johnny McPhillips, Munster centre Calvin Nash and Leinster’s Jordan Larmour and Jack Kelly, Carolan has a wealth of natural talent at his disposal. So while his coaching focus will hone in on ‘simple things’, he trusts that players will find the right time to be creative.

“In every situation there’s a high-risk option and a low-risk option. We try and present those options to the guys so they can decide. I think it stood us well in the World Cup last year, where at times we had to go high-risk – particularly when we were 17 points down against Wales.

“When you can throw caution to the wind in areas you have practiced it can stand to you well. Then in the New Zealand game, you know there’s a team who like spreading it around. When the weather deteriorates we have a game we can adapt to that and try and be effective against all opposition in all weather conditions.”

Nigel Carolan and Pat Lam James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Carolan, of course, is academy manager at Connacht as well as head coach of the island’s top age grade side. Yet despite the hot seat out west being vacated by Pat Lam this summer, he insists he’s not quite ready to step up into senior level rugby just yet.

“I’m happy doing what I’m doing at the moment. That’s not to say that, down the road, it’s not something I would be interested in, but I am happy doing what I am doing now,” says Carolan.

With two small children of his own, he echoed a sentiment Lam himself expressed about the fickle nature of coaching a professional outfit.

“To roll the dice as a professional coach, you are depending on players, decisions, weather, referees — it’s a big decision to go down that road and (head coaches) deserve everything that they get.”

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