Allen Clarke doesn’t hang about singing the praises of his current west Wales address. “Your home is your home,” said the Northern Irish man to RugbyPass, “but as a second option, I would highly recommend it to everyone, it is wonderful.”
Let’s hope he keeps enjoying it while it lasts as the track record for Irish coaches seeing through to the finish a three-year deal in Wales isn’t all that encouraging.
Bernard Jackman – another old-time Ireland hooker – had been unveiled to great pomp and ceremony at the Dragons in summer 2017. Eighteen months was all he managed, poor results leading to the plug being pulled just halfway through the job he was contracted to do.
That same halfway house is what Clarke is now approaching and with recent results on the slippery slope, he could well wind up looking over his shoulder waiting for some bad news to be delivered mid-winter.
He was never meant to be the top guy at Ospreys. He arrived in summer 2017 as forwards coach but with Steve Tandy stepping aside the following January, Clarke took on running the show, initially on an interim basis before hands were shaken on a three-year deal in late April 2018.
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It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, to say the least. Everything from the frightening low of the Ospreys’ existence being threatened by merger talks to a European qualifier playoff win over rivals Scarlets.
Now they are back in the pit again, struggling after just one PRO14 win in six ahead of a Champions Cup campaign that begins on Saturday with the arrival of Munster in Swansea, a daunting fixture quickly followed by a trip to London to take on champions Saracens.
As it stands, Clarke is just below break-even territory – 44 matches in charge divided by 21 wins and 23 losses in the league, Europe and Anglo-Welsh Cup. What is needed is the return of his Welsh RWC contingent led by talisman Alun-Wyn Jones, but in the meantime the hits just keep on coming, the latest being the dreadful home loss to PRO14 whipping boys, Southern Kings.
That should have been enough to make a strong man weep but Clarke is all stiff upper lip and spoiling for the fight, adamant that Ospreys are still heading in the right direction under his baton.
“You have used the word building foundations, we recognise we are in that phase,” he reasoned. “We have got world-class players, world-renowned individuals who are iconic in the game but we have got to build that squad and compete throughout the season.
“Probably where we are at the moment is a reflection of our needs. There is a strategy now in place to ensure that we recruit well, we retain well and we add to our current player base. It’s not going to happen overnight, it is going to take some time but we have a realistic timeline in terms of really being in a position to challenge for trophies.
— Ospreys (@ospreys) November 15, 2019
“We’d a tremendous summer. We approached the season wholeheartedly, with a lot of enthusiasm, and morale within the camp is excellent, but we have taken a couple of really bad knocks injury-wise and we are having to cope with that.
“That is a challenge but it is also an opportunity for the young boys who are getting game minutes now. This time next year they will be experienced… it has been challenging but I get tremendous support, in particular from the player group but also from the board and everyone associated from the Ospreys.”
A European Cup winner with Ulster in 1999, Clarke’s post-playing career has seen him work for his native province as well as a stint heading up the IRFU’s age-grade system. He knows the steps that need to be taken to deliver on a long-term plan.
Effectively, despite years of change under EPCR, European rugby is back where it was under ERC as clubs are again playing for the Heineken Cup https://t.co/Q1TVczJL21
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 15, 2019
The question is, will he be afforded the allotted time to deliver now that the Ospreys have a future safeguarded following months of misery involving merger talks and whatnot last spring?
“I have admired the Ospreys for some time,” admitted Clarke, who parted company with Ulster during the ill-fated Les Kiss era. “Those values and characteristics are coming to the fore again. Honesty, fight, work ethic, togetherness, a good place to work but we challenge one another and support one about accordingly.
“It’s good. The Ospreys is in a strong position off the field. We’re looking to ensure that we replicate that on the field. There is no doubt that [merger talk] was extremely unnerving for players, management, everybody associated with the Ospreys, supporters, but to come through that, to get into European Champions Cup, it was a real testament to everyone involved.
“Of course it did (cause upset), not knowing if you had a budget and even if you did have a budget, not knowing you would exist and could recruit players for the team. We were behind the black ball in that regard. It’s important now – and we recognise it is important – that the need is there to be on the front foot, to do our research, to identify the players we want to recruit and to do that business early.”
The Welsh Rugby Union played its part near the end of last season, convincing skipper Jones to stick with a national contract that keeps him at Ospreys. Clarke believes there is now a far more coherent plan from the top aimed at rejuvenating the regional product.
“Not for one minute did I think Alun-Wyn would not be an Osprey. The absolute detail behind it I’m not sure, but obviously all of these things take time to go through the proper process.
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“Certainly what I’m seeing now is Welsh rugby would be much more joined up and working as one therefore benefiting the player, putting the player central and that would benefit all the teams and ultimately your national team which is very much the drive in Ireland. It is top down and bottom up and you have got to have that cohesion throughout your pathway.
“Those high performance pathways, there is a real understanding that the future of Welsh rugby starts eight, ten years in advance of what you see on the field at international level and there is a real drive to align the management and the competition structures of age-grade rugby in Wales.
“Undoubtedly the success of any club team is based on your academy structures and it is absolutely critical to get those in place. That back-ends your squad and that is your future international quality players that come from your own resources, and you support that with good form and with recruitment.
The Saracens XV heading to play Racing in Paris is very different from the one that defeated Leinster in the final in their last European game six months ago https://t.co/jbPsbXlby6
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 15, 2019
“In Wales we are certainly looking to do that now. That takes some time. It’s not going to happen overnight, as I said, so what we need to ensure is we keep the best players within Wales at our club, at Ospreys, and we support them with good form and with good non-Welsh recruits.”
That’s the long-term view but, for now, it’s about Europe and taking on heavyweights from Ireland and England. “It’s the pool of death, really. It’s going to be a huge challenge. Munster at home, we’re not getting too far beyond that.
“We expect Munster to be at full strength. Obviously we are not going to be but we are a proud bunch of men. After that we are away to Saracens. You’re looking at two teams who have won Europe or been in the semi-finals over the last couple of years. It’s going to be really important we get off to a decent start if we are going to progress out of this group.”
WATCH: The Dragons Lair, the RugbyPass behind the scenes documentary on the Dragons when Bernard Jackman was in charge
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