On rollercoaster plans:Six Nations: O'sullivan Relishes The Rollercoaster Ride
Eddie O'Sullivan is an avid reader of sports books. "Books about mountaineering especially," he says, leaning forward in his seat, his eyes wide and bright at the thought of daredevil climbers risking all to conquer Everest. "But I like golf books as well. I like the mental aspect of the game. And boxing. Football, too - I'm halfway through Paul McGrath's autobiography. A terrific book about a great athlete. I'm not a big fan of fiction. Non- fiction is my thing. I prefer reality."
This literary preference might go some way to explaining why Ireland's coach refuses to embrace the optimism that has enveloped Irish rugby since Australia and South Africa were beaten in Dublin in the autumn - two excellent performances that led to the current squad being installed as favourites to win the grand slam for Ireland for the first time since 1948.
Who, the argument goes, will cope with an experienced Irish pack led by the magnificent Paul O'Connell and a back line that has more stars than a Vanity Fair party on Oscar night? A French team with its mind on winning the World Cup at home later in the year? The lightweight Scots, or the dysfunctional English? How about any, or all, of them, suggests O'Sullivan.
"The Six Nations is a very funny animal. Most of the time the team predicted to win it doesn't win it and there are very few grand slams any more. You have got to get five good performances in seven weeks and your chances are often dependent on the fixture list, whether you are home or away, and your injuries. People can talk all they want but nobody really knows how it will go. We were favourites two years ago and look what happened then."
What happened then was that Wales won the grand slam at the Millennium Stadium and the Irish, who had travelled to Cardiff with ambitions of winning a triple crown, were left on the sidelines.
Since then, O'Sullivan has overhauled his squad and altered the way his team plays. He is an obsessive collector of statistics on Irish performances and his most treasured are those which illustrate how Ireland went from being the team that kicked the ball most and passed it least in the 2005 Six Nations, to the team that passed it most and kicked it least in the 2006 championship.
"As a coach you have to cut your cloth to fit what you have got," he explains. "A couple of years ago we couldn't have played the kind of rugby we play now. We're in a better position now - we've got some new players in, and the guys who were there before are more mature and more comfortable at the highest level."
When the new, improved Ireland return to Cardiff tomorrow they will face a Wales team yet to fully re-emerge from the upheaval of Mike ______continued.
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O'Sullivan's caution is understandable, not least because he has experience of how quickly fortunes can swing. After Ireland's recent eye-catching performances he is being hailed as the epitome of the modern coach - scientific in his preparation and eager to embrace attractive, open rugby - but 15 months ago, after a disappointing 2005 autumn series, people were calling for him to be sacked.
"It was an ugly time, not nice at all. I tried to forewarn people by telling them we were without Brian O'Driscoll and O'Connell because of injury, and that we were changing the squad substantially but no one bought into it," he recalls. "We got through it, though. You just have to tell yourself that the media always over- react. When things are going badly they say it is disaster, and when it's going well everything is perfect. If you win by a point you're a genius, if you lose by a point it is time for you to go. The best thing to do is try and keep a balance within yourself and when you're dealing with the players."
If O'Sullivan's confidence remained intact through this rough patch, his relationship with the Irish media, never the smoothest, became even more strained. Never one of life's diplomats, after taking the Irish job he quickly gained a reputation for being uncompromising when it came to dealing with journalists and players. The upshot was, he had little goodwill to draw upon when things went wrong.
"At the start I was trying to establish myself in the job, to set standards. That hasn't changed but I think people understand me a little bit more nowadays, and I understand them a bit more too. I think we are closer to achieving what we want to achieve and that maybe makes me a little less intense," he says.
Maybe it does. Yet it does not require a degree in semiology to detect that some of the harshest criticism heaped on his players and himself will never be forgotten, and nor will those who made it ever be forgiven. "For instance, someone on RTE referred to Ireland's front row as being crap. As far as I am concerned that's not the kind of language a television analyst should use in a professional situation," he says. "All I ask is for the media to be fair and balanced. You're probably not supposed to wear your heart on your sleeve in this business but I do. I say what I have to say because I think being straight is the only way to be respected as a coach and as a person."
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