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The Leader Interview..with Niall O'Donovan, businessman and rugby coach

IN A WAY, the situation in which Niall O'Donovan found himself last summer was no different from that of thousands of workers around the country, given Ireland's free-falling economy.

"My contract with the IRFU finished in May but they asked me to go on the tour of New Zealand in June because Declan was only getting settled into the new job. Then when I came back from the tour, I was out of work for the first time in over 30 years."

Many comparisons, in fact, could be drawn between the now-deceased Celtic Tiger and the pre-Declan Kidney Irish rugby team for which O'Donovan had served as forwards coach from 2002 to 2008. After several years of unprecedented quality performance, both encountered a rapid downfall, for which the public demanded retribution.

"It had been an outstanding six years for Irish rugby, we were going into a World Cup having beaten Australia and South Africa, and a bounce of a ball against France caught us for a Grand Slam that year," recalls the former number 8 who also enjoyed a medal-strewn playing and coaching career with Shannon.

His five-year tenure as Munster assistant coach came agonisingly close to reaping further silverware but twice the city man - and the rest of Munster with him - had his heart broken at the last hurdle.

"We made a mistake with Ireland," continues O'Donovan, a lot more relaxed in his home in Ardnacrusha now than he, and many others in the Irish rugby set-up, felt in the months following the national side's World Cup capitulation.

"We took fellas out of rugby from March and put them in cotton wool too early. There were two decisions to make on whether to give them game time or, because we'd such a small squad, to be very careful with the players. If we lost O'Driscoll, O'Gara or Paul O'Connell you'd be called the biggest eejit in the world, so we erred the other way."

Following the painful disappointment of the World Cup in France, O'Sullivan and his forwards coach were given a shot at redemption in the 2008 Six Nations. Unfortunately, a rot had set in.

"A lot of things can get at a team, the lads were a lot better than what they seemed in the World Cup. Did they get the proper preparation? No. Did they justify themselves? No. It was a chance lost," he continues.

"But what happens after something like that is a team loses confidence and with confidence a team does things they wouldn't normally do, we saw that with Munster all this season.

"Off the back of the World Cup though, Eddie was under fierce pressure and the press really got at everyone so we never got a chance to come out of the depression. Everything was related back to the World Cup."

Of course in another way, O'Donovan's story is entirely different from that of the growing unemployed masses. For one thing, he always knew that a coaching job, by its nature, could not be permanent.

For another, 40 years spent revolving his life around rugby has presented the Island Road native with another opportunity.

The seeds of his new business venture were sown in 1984, when Pontypool - then champions of Wales, having gone a whole season unbeaten - came to play, and subsequently lose to, Shannon.

"They'd played 45 games that season and won 45 so they came over here with a serious reputation but we beat them. We got them well drunk the night before mind you!"

Over the course of the Welshmen's stay in Limerick, Niall got chatting with Lyndon Faulkner, the Pontypool hooker. After hitting if off over several pre and post match drinks, the two maintained occasional contact.

Whenever Shannon went on tour to Wales, however, Niall was told that Lyndon was spending most of his time in America where he'd apparently set up a business.

That business turned out to be Nimbus, an integral player in the development of the CD and DVD which, at its height, was one of the most profitable companies in the digital media and home entertainment sector.

After making the company public, Faulkner went on to work with Microsoft and linked up with his former on-pitch opponent when he was assigned to the computer giant's Dublin office for a few months.

Faulkner didn't forget the O'Donovans' hospitality when he again moved to Seattle to become CEO of PELI Products, a worldwide manufacturer of protective cases and stand-alone torches.

When the company decided to expand into the Irish market, the Welshman informed his Limerick friend that, were he so inclined, the licence to trade Peli Products was his.

"It's been a huge shock and has taken adjusting," says Niall, of his re-entry to a non-sporting profession. An upside, however, of not having his time divided between training camps, selection meetings and matches around the globe, is that he has had the time to give back to the place that he says moulded him.

"The Island Road was an absolutely brilliant place to grow up; it was inner city, lots of sports, everything was catered for. We had fields behind our house so we played rugby in the field and soccer on the road. There's a shop there now, Spratt's, behind St Mary's Church, that was our house. All my father's family came from the Island Road and my mother came from Grattan Street, near John's Cathedral.

"Dad was on the original 1960 Shannon team that won the first cup for Shannon, I was born four days after. The Senior Cup was so big then that they took the boats out of the Abbey River and burned them as part of the bonfires all around the "Parish" on May Eve to celebrate. They say I was called Niall because 'There is an Isle' was still being sung constantly around the house at the time."

Given the apparent origins of his name, it was little wonder that the only boy amongst the four O'Donovan children would go on to play rugby with the "Parish".

"I started playing when I was seven or eight I suppose, I was originally a centre but then I started to slow down so they moved me into Number 8."

It was in that position that Niall would star for Shannon, and like his father, would claim several Munster Senior Cup medals - "If you had one of those in Limerick in the '70s and '80s you were God" - but the club's true glory days came in the mid-'90s when, as coach, O'Donovan oversaw the historic 'four in a row' of All-Ireland League victories.

His debut season on the other side of the chalk was a baptism of fire, which saw Shannon come perilously close to relegation, and left the new coach doubtful about his suitability for the new role.

"I was reluctant enough to take it on again but at a club meeting I ended up saying I would and it ended up being a great season after we brought in players from the 20s - the likes of Andrew Thompson, Anthony Foley and John Hayes."

Actually it ended up being four great seasons as Shannon claimed the title of AIL champions every year from 1995 through to 1998, propelling several of their players and ultimately coach into the newly professionalised Munster set up.

"Our first game was in Dooradoyle against Leinster in 1998. Declan and myself, Gerry Holland as manager, Colm Tucker was an advisor and Dave Mahedy was fitness coach, that was the entire backroom team and there was less than 300 people at the game that day."

From relatively humble beginnings, however, the Munster bandwagon gathered momentum at a pace nobody - including those within the team and coaching staff - could have predicted. For Niall, the moment when it truly hit home that they had helped create something special came the night before the Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse in 2000.

"We were playing the game away to Toulouse - who were the kings of European rugby at the time - in Bordeaux. Myself and a few of the lads walked down through the town the night before. There were thousands of supporters and it was just red everywhere. People were walking up to us, shaking our hands. I remember thinking; 'Jesus, this is crazy'."

While the following day's game resulted in one of Munster's most memorable victories, the final resulted in an unlikely 9-8 victory for Northampton, one of the only teams to play Munster that year who hadn't been assigned the tag of favourites.

"I think to appreciate heaven, you have to go through hell and in a way, that's what the lads did for the two lost finals," he says of the 2000 and 2002 finals in which Munster hearts were broken.

After O'Donovan and Kidney made their second trip to Hell courtesy of Leicester Tigers in 2002, both left to enter the Irish set-up under O'Sullivan.

While the Corkman never settled in a coaching job until he returned to Munster to finally win the Heineken Cup in 2006, his former assistant enjoyed six years of unprecedented performances with Ireland.

Although three Triple Crowns represented a level of success never before experienced by an Irish side, the Grand Slam - just like the Heineken Cup before it - eluded O'Donovan's charges until Kidney took the national reins this season. Despite bringing two teams to the brink of glory only to have moved on when the cup was lifted doesn't seem to bother him in the slightest however.

"I've had my ups and downs but there's been far more ups. I've worked with two top fellas in Declan and Eddie and an outstanding bunch of players with both Munster and Ireland. I'm in awe of them sometimes when I see what they put themselves through in training compared to what we did 20 and 30 years ago.

"Having said that, I've great respect for anyone who takes the field to play rugby these days because it's gotten much tougher on the body. The game has changed a lot since my time."

Factfile.

Favourite Book: Angels & Demons, just finished it, a real pageturner.

Favourite Film: Scent of a Woman

Favourite Holiday Destination: Waterville, Co Kerry.

Favourite Meal: Anything from Alfredo's Italian

 
 
 

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