The news that Eddie O’Sullivan has taken over as head coach of Biarritz was met with shock in Irish rugby circles. Less than 24 hours before the announcement, O’Sullivan seemed set to finally return to the Irish scene as a backs coach at Munster, but ultimately the offer of the top gig at one of France’s most famous clubs proved too good to turn down for the Cork man.
On first viewing, Eddie O’Sullivan and Biarritz have a lot in common, and the move offers both a chance to rebuild a shattered reputation. While O’Sullivan was enjoying his career peak, winning three Triple Crowns with Ireland between 2004 and 2007, Biarritz were strutting their stuff on the European stage, making the knock-out stages of the Heineken cup four times in a row and winning the French title in 2002, 2005 and 2006. Since 2007, however, both parties have seen their fortunes take a severe turn for the worse.
O’Sullivan presided over Ireland’s disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign and was relieved of his duties after a calamitous Six Nations in 2008, before seeing his reputation take another hammering as Declan Kidney and Brian O’Driscoll lead the team to a Grand Slam to kickstart the post-Eddie era.
Biarritz’s peak as a team occurred a year earlier than O’Sullivan’s last triple crown, as they hammered Toulouse 40-13 in the 2006 Top 14 final and were only denied a double by Munster’s famous first European title a week later. They regressed but remained competitive in the years since, finally getting their hands on a first European title with the Amlin Cup in 2012. This season, however, proved one too far for players such as Dimitri Yachvili, Imanol Harinordoquy and Damien Traille, as a disastrous year saw them finish bottom of the league by a stunning 21 points.
As a rugby coach, O’Sullivan certainly has the tools to make this new gig work. His time as Irish manager attracts large amounts of negative analysis, much of it unfairly. At 64% he has easily the best winning percentage of any Irish manager, Joe Schmidt’s fledgling tenure notwithstanding. Moreover, even his most vocal critics will admit that he suffered cruel luck when it came to racking up silverware, missing out on a Six Nations title on points difference in 2005, and losing out on a 2007 Grand Slam thanks to a Brian O’Driscoll injury and some woeful Geordan Murphy defending against France in Croke Park in 2007. It seems likely that had he availed of the type of superhuman effort O’Driscoll produced in 2009, it would have been O’Sullivan who bridged the gap between Irish Grand Slams.
That 2007 season gives a good insight into O’ Sullivan the coach, as his team excelled in his specialty area, with some spectacular back play executed to perfection by adventurous and gifted players in the vein of Murphy and O’Driscoll. Lack of consistency up front and a dodgy set piece cost them however, and delegation of this part of the game to a top quality forwards coach at Biarritz will be key to O’Sullivan’s new venture.
The team O’Sullivan will take charge of however, is one in disarray. As mentioned above, players like Yachvili, Harinordoquy, Traille, Julien Peyrelongue and Erik Lund, once stars, have been allowed to grow old together and have finally been found out this season. The lack of adequate replacements has led to the horror 2013-2014 season which will see them pitch up in the super-competitive Pro D2 next season. 68 tries and 656 points conceded in 26 games works out at an astonishing average of 25 points and almost 3 tries per game with a 39-0 defeat to Castres and a 53-20 hammering at the hands of Bordeaux in their last game the low points of the season.
The one bright spark in a dark season came four weeks ago when they managed to beat Brive in their final home game of the season to give the retiring Yachvili a fitting send off. Serious rebuilding is needed, and their big name signing so far this summer is none other than Scotland’s Nick De Luca, hardly a man to inspire confidence.
Pro D2 itself is a nasty, difficult league which can suck a team down to its own level, and escaping back to the top table quickly will be O’Sullivan’s minimum aim. Teams such as Mont-De-Marsan, relegated last year and now wallowing in 7th place, show how difficult it can be to acclimatize to the lower level, while the culture of rich owners has spread to this division as well, with teams like La Rochelle making big financial waves.
Key to Biarritz’s season will persuading some of the bigger names to stick around and slug it out in the lower division, with retirement an infinitely more attractive prospect to the likes of Harinordoquy. A clearout of the dead wood is certainly needed, and Eddie could do his old employers in the IRFU a favour by looking at some provincial fringe players and giving them a run at first team rugby in France.
Neither party really has anything to lose in this link up, as both have reached a low ebb. An Irish coach will bring a fresh approach to a stale team and France will represent a fresh challenge for Eddie. His treatment at the hands of the IRFU since he returned from his second spell in the USA has been harsh, and the decision to not interview him for the open position of Connacht head coach seemed a needless public humiliation.
No matter how his time with the national team ended, it should never have come to the point where such a fine, native rugby mind was lost to this country. What better way to prove the haters wrong than turning Biarritz around? No doubt it is a mammoth task, but things cannot get any worse for either Eddie or Biarritz and the appointment could turn out to be an inspired one.
Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena.