Age 52 (21 November 1958)
Birthplace Youghal, Co Cork
Monivea, Blackrock, Connacht, Ireland U21, Ireland, USA Eagles
Record as USA coach
P10 W6 L4
Eddie O’Sullivan has tried to stabilise the American team while trialling new ideas. Has he found a winning formula?
Going into 2009, the USA players were justifiably skittish. Nothing, it seemed, could be depended upon, especially their coaching situation.
In 2006 head coach Tom Billups had stepped down over a conflict with the USA Rugby leadership. His replacement, Peter Thorburn, was always going to leave after the 2007 World Cup, but Thorburn’s replacement, Scott Johnson, barely lasted a year before leaving to join the Ospreys.
With two shock resignations from their coaches in the space of three years, the Eagles players were reluctant to put their faith in a new coach, and yet, like a lonely child, they desperately wanted the stability they didn’t trust.
Into that confused situation stepped Eddie O’Sullivan. Having left Ireland after a disappointing 2007 World Cup and 2008 Six Nations, O’Sullivan was returning to the country that gave him his start in international coaching.
Immediately he made clear his position: he might be Irish, but he had spent a great deal of time in America and knew the game there; no, he wasn’t going to change everything, but he would change a few things; and no, he wasn’t going to leave. That last point mattered as much as anything. O’Sullivan’s main message was: “I’m here at least through to the 2011 World Cup. Depend on that.”
O’Sullivan put his stamp on the USA team early. He made changes to the line-up and the pattern of play – opting for a more direct, hard-nosed attack. And the result was a 27-10 defeat in his debut match against Ireland in California. A loss, against his old team, but O’Sullivan had effected something of a turnaround for a team beaten badly (twice) by Japan a few months earlier. Perhaps the games that really cemented O’Sullivan’s place were that summer’s World Cup qualifiers against Canada.
Going into the first match in Charleston, South Carolina, the USA were on a four-game losing streak against their rivals to the north. They hadn’t really been in those games at all. Now O’Sullivan got his team believing again in a game that made up for what it lost in fluid rugby with passion.
The Americans won 12-6 on 4 July. The return match in Edmonton didn’t go as well – Canada were 24-0 up by half-time and won 41-18 to take the series. But one episode was telling. Rugby Canada’s playing of the United States national anthem was a failure, and while the players stewed quietly about the slight, O’Sullivan was openly furious. He clearly feels a strong bond with the Americans.
“I’ve been involved with American rugby for years,” O’Sullivan explains. “I coached with the Eagles in 1999 and really enjoyed my time there. I helped start the Coaching Development Programme as national technical director and that’s something I’m very proud of. I have a lot of respect for the coaches and players in America and I always hoped people would understand that I may be Irish, but I respect American rugby.”
Eagles centre/wing Paul Emerick adds: “Eddie was in the US set-up years before he became head coach. I think that most definitely helps him out, being familiar with American sporting culture. He’s approachable and I’m able to have straightforward conversations with him about my playing expectations.”
On the field O’Sullivan has had some tough decisions to make. He dropped all-time leading scorer Mike Hercus, as well as established professional prop Mike MacDonald. He took several gambles, giving starting spots to wing Kevin Swiryn, No 8 Nic Johnson and lock Samu Manoa when those players seemed out of the loop.
The Eagles ended 2009 with two wins over Uruguay to punch their ticket for the World Cup in New Zealand, clinching qualification on O’Sullivan’s 51st birthday. That left almost two years to prepare for the big tournament. O’Sullivan has spent that time tinkering with his line-up – for instance using seven different centres, including two sets of brothers. He has similarly played musical loose forwards.
“I’ve just got to see all the combinations,” O’Sullivan explains. “There are guys who can’t be available because of school or work. I’d like that not to be the case but it is what it is and we work with it. So I have to see who else we’ve got.
“There are always players coming out of the All-American system and the U20s, and also players you just find, you know? We have to see them all.”
O’Sullivan has spent some time in Hawaii looking at that much-overlooked talent pool in the middle of the Pacific. He has looked at gridiron players too.
All the changes inevitably produced inconsistency in the results. In the 2010 Churchill Cup the Eagles defeated Russia, lost to England Saxons and almost beat France A, providing reason for optimism. But on their November tour they lost to Saracens and Scotland A (without scoring a try in either game), edged Portugal 22-17, and lost in the final seconds against Georgia, 19-17.
Now comes O’Sullivan’s final exam – they don’t call them Test matches for nothing. He has tinkered with his team, his game plan and coaching staff to prepare for a very tough World Cup. All that must end, now – or does it? With O’Sullivan, the Irishman who loves America, you just never know.
This article appeared in Part 1 of our Rugby World Cup Supplement.
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