WHEN Nigel Carolan decided to bring to an end his 26-year association with Connacht – as a winger for the province who had to retire from playing at 26 due to a neck injury, as academy manager for 14-years and as backs coach of the senior side for four years – it was because he believed it was time to challenge himself in a fresh environment.
“It’s not that I was getting comfortable – you never can in professional rugby – but when you’re in the one environment you start to get tunnel vision as that’s all you know,” he explains.
“Andy Friend [Connacht’s Australian head coach] said to me when I was leaving that ‘comfort and challenge don’t live in the same room’. For me, if I want to grow and expand how I see and coach the game I need to get more perspective.”
He says joining the staff at Glasgow Warriors as the new attack coach appealed to him because it was a club he had long admired from a distance, it wasn’t going to mean moving halfway round the world, and he generally liked what he heard during initial discussions from head coach Danny Wilson and managing director Al Kellock.
“When Glasgow popped up, there were a few other options on the table, but I got excited about this one,” he says. “I’ve played against Glasgow at Scotstoun and it’s a bloody tough place to come as an away team. They play an attacking brand of rugby that I felt I could support and challenge to see if I could make it better.
“For me coming in, there are three big areas. Firstly, I’m not going to change their desire to play fast – it’s a fast pitch here at Scotstoun and the lads are well-conditioned. Secondly, I want to add a little bit of unpredictability to their play and always having multiple options in terms of how they set themselves up. The third thing is having that adaptability, [because] at the end of last season I thought there was nice balance to their game – historically they like to run with the ball and hang on to possession, but when you see the trends in the game it can bite you a little on the bum if you over-play in your own half.
“It’s a transition for me and my family that’s not a million miles from Ireland,” he adds. “We were able to dip home at the weekend for my son’s communion – this whole journey is about my family as well and making sure they can get integrated. Glasgow seems a really easy place to live and get on and feel part of the city. I’m looking forward to our new life in Scotland.”
While the opportunity to experience something different was the chief driver of the move, Carolan is quick to highlight that bringing with him the good stuff he was involved with back in Connacht is also important – especially when it comes to helping homegrown players from inside and outside the FOSROC Academy set-up break into the senior squad.
That has been an issue for Scotland’s pro teams in the recent past. In the three seasons between 2018-19 and 2020-21, Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors managed to promote a combined total of just 14 players from their academy structure into their senior squads, while their Irish counterparts managed to bring 57 academy players through, and their Welsh counterparts managed 35.
With Covid leading to a freeze on squad budgets last season, several Scottish youngsters who would almost certainly not have got a chance to play at pro level in a normal year ended up getting a chance, and this undoubtedly contributed to a modest increase in the number of players graduating to full-time contracts this summer.
Edinburgh handed senior deals to Dan Muncaster and Nathan Chamberlain, while Warriors signed up Tom Lambert, Ross Thompson and Ollie Smith. While five is hardly a deluge, it isn’t far off the seven academy players in Wales who have moved on to full-time contracts this summer. It is, however, still some distance behind Ireland who had 22 players make the step-up.
The fear is that with a bit more cash now swirling about, both sides will revert back to relying heavily on battle-hardened journeyman who have been brought in as quick fixes, meaning that there may not be as many opportunities for youngsters during the season ahead. However, Carolan says that this won’t be the case if he has any input into squad development.
“My background in Connacht was in the academy and age-grade set-up before I joined the professional side, so I am used to bringing young guys through,” he says. “Our resources were so limited that we had to maximise everything, but the reward is seeing those guys come through and eventually getting international recognition.
“It was my job to try to identify these rough diamonds, so we were looking at guys from other provinces and other backgrounds – guys, really, who hadn’t made it anywhere else – and trying to polish them into diamonds. A lot of those guys came through and it was extremely rewarding.
“And when I see the young guys here, I see so much talent and so much potential, and they’re the guys you’ve really got to nurture and invest in now.
“The way you invest in them is with game-time – game-time is gold, that’s the currency, that’s how they make their way.
“It is something I spoke about with Al and Danny before coming over – getting the best out of what you’ve got – and I see that as very much part of my role.”
Carolan added that Thompson is perfect proof youngsters in the Scottish system can be good enough and well enough prepared to cope with the step-up if given a chance.
The stand-off had been in the academy for two and a half years and his progress appeared to have stalled when a combination of injuries to Adam Hastings and Pete Horne, and the desperate form of Brandon Thomson, left the youngster as the last man standing back in January.
The 22-year-old went on to be voted McCrea Financial Service Player of the Season by the club’s supporters after a series of assured performances during the second half of the campaign, and he would almost certainly have picked up his first senior cap this summer had Covid not ruined Scotland’s summer schedule.
“You watch Ross play and he doesn’t play like a young fella who was ‘the last man standing’ last year, and certainly at the end of the season I saw unbelievable balance to his game,” says Carolan. “He’s got a fantastic left foot, he attacks the line, he’s a good defender and he’s brave under the high ball. You know that if he was in any other club or with any other team, he’d be putting his hand-up.
“So, at the moment, we don’t have a perceived pecking order at 10, but he’s up there. Duncan [Weir] is there to support and help bring him through, and Domingo [Miotti] is going to be around as well, but Ross knows the landscape, he knows the pitch and he knows the league. With what he has shown in the last six months, I think he’s got a really bright future.”