The departure of Jason O’Halloran will not be mourned in Glasgow as long and loud as those of Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg or Jonny Gray, nor will his legacy be debated and scrutinised in the years to come as Dave Rennie’s has been already, yet the attack coach has played a critical role in driving the Scottish game forwards.
Intelligent and affable, O’Halloran is a fascinating rugby man. The former All Black revolutionised Scotland’s attack under Vern Cotter and with Rennie, added extra gears to an already potent Glasgow squad. He helped polish a cohort of tremendous young players, pushed hard for a fairer approach to Scotland’s academy system and famously delivered a frank indictment of how the Scottish setup lagged decades behind New Zealand in sports psychology and mental preparation.
With Rennie’s exit for Australia, he too is leaving, taking up an assistant coach role with Suntory Sungoliath. And in reflecting on four-and-a-half years in Scotland, he sheds light on a predicament facing Glasgow amid their need for new blood, a predicament causing mounting disquiet among the club’s fans.
It is a simple fact that Glasgow cannot cling on to the Hoggs and Russells and Grays forever, but it is the dearth of prime cattle coming the other way that has supporters fretting.
“Everyone bemoans the fact that we lose a lot of quality players like Hoggy, Finn and Jonny,” O’Halloran tells RugbyPass. “A lot of people want us to throw all that money back at two other massive names – you’ve got to reinvest in your squad.
“Young guys that have become more successful can’t be kept for £50,000-60,000 anymore. You have to keep paying them more as they develop and that eats up a lot of cash.
“And are you going to shell out £300,000-400,000 for a slightly-better-than-mediocre Super Rugby player, or are you going to continue to develop young guys? That’s better for Scotland as well.”
If, for instance, Glasgow have a burgeoning Adam Hastings hungry and good enough to make the jersey his own with Russell gone, then that’s great. But it isn’t always the case. This season, Rennie had to make do and mend at full-back, shifting Tommy Seymour across from the wing, using Ruaridh Jackson or Glenn Bryce to fill a gaping Hogg-shaped void.
Glasgow cannot sign another Hogg. And realistically, the Jacksons and Seymours are bridging a gap until the next youngster – very likely Rufus McLean or Ollie Smith – is ready to be bled into the team.
But Warriors have powered themselves to such a height – semi-finals and finals, Champions Cup knock-out appearances, a relentlessly sold-out Scotstoun – that spells in transition lead to anxiety. If the kids aren’t ready, Glasgow need to recruit. But in the pre-coronavirus market, how could they justify forking out vast sums for players who aren’t masses better than what they already have? And if they can’t or won’t pay those wages, how do they get substantially better?
“You’ve got to identify two or three key positions you need to bolster and be prepared to spend some money there and then understand where that money is coming from, so you might to give a little bit in one area to get some in another,” O’Halloran says.
“There was talk that Alex Goode might be available at one stage and I thought a guy like that would be ideal. If you look at anyone back in Super Rugby that’s competent at full-back, they want £300,000-400,000.
“A couple of years ago, we looked at Matt Proctor, who is a good utility back, he got a Test for the All Blacks, and they wanted £350,000-380,000 for him. That’s mad. It’s a criminal amount of money. And he got it and then some at Northampton Saints.
“We can’t spend £400,000 on a decent-level Super Rugby player. To me, that’s crazy. Is he that much better than a Nick Grigg that you’re going to splash out that much money on them? That’s a big conundrum. At what stage do you go, yeah, we’re prepared to spend £400,000 on this guy because he’s that much better than what we have?”
Glasgow could do with a real juggernaut at blind-side or number eight, dependable cover at half-back, and a flourish of quality in the second-row.
Leone Nakarawa might yet deliver that stardust, as he comes to the end of his brief but spectacular second spell at the club. The Fijian colossus is one of the most coveted players in the game and while they can’t pay him top dollar, he feels cherished and happy in the city, especially after his acrimonious exit from Racing 92.
As he left for Australia, Rennie said that Danny Wilson, his successor, would soon be unveiling new signings. What Glasgow and their fans would give for Nakarawa to be among them.
“I’m pretty assured that they are definitely trying to keep him,” O’Halloran says. “In a nutshell, right, when Leone arrived in January, I think we were 11th for off-loads in the Pro14. Five games later, we were first – and first by a mile.
“I know Leone throws the odd loose one, but all of a sudden, guys are thinking about moving the ball in the tackle straight away. The biggest thing about him is he brings confidence to people around him. His first touch for us away to Sale was a try. Our off-load numbers went up, but our off-load accuracy was always above 80%, and that’s a key threshold for us.
“Leone is an unbelievable athlete and you can play him at 6, 8 or lock. He’s a great line-out forward as well. He’s an important cog to try and retain for sure, and he loves being in Glasgow. You’d like to think a quality Fijian international like that might attract other Fijians. If he can stay fit, he can still have a massive impact.”
While he could not deliver a trophy, Rennie’s legacy will endure in the young men he nurtured and developed into exhilarating players, individuals who still have a lot of growing to do but are already among the top operators in the Pro14. Hastings is the most striking example of sustained and excellent improvement, but George Horne, Matt and Zander Fagerson, and Scott Cummings have all made massive strides. O’Halloran is seriously excited about Bruce Flockhart, the hulking number eight, and Tom Gordon, the effervescent open-side who was involved in Scotland’s Six Nations training squad.
Rennie also advocated robustly for change to the national academies that could benefit Glasgow in the years ahead. He felt that Edinburgh’s proliferation of storied, rugby-playing private schools gave the professional team unfair access to a heap of emerging talent.
Glasgow signed Jamie Dobie straight from Edinburgh’s Merchiston Castle School in the summer, and already, the teenage scrum-half looks to be a mighty prospect.
“Dave was instrumental in trying to change Scottish Rugby’s mindset towards the academies,” O’Halloran says. “Pretty much all of the quality players go down to Merchiston or whichever big Edinburgh school and come under Edinburgh’s umbrella.
“We were trying to promote the fact that it should be a contestable process, so we can approach anybody in the country and offer them an opportunity at Glasgow and in doing that, create competition, so Edinburgh have to show up on their soil and do their job better, and that makes both entities better.
“I don’t think you should be able to sit back and rake in all this talent because it just happens to be going to school near you, especially when some of those kids are from the Glasgow area but have moved to Edinburgh. A lot of things need to go on in that regard.
“The best way to circumvent the lack of cash is to have quality academies. That’s where Leinster are better than anybody else – their academy is friggin’ outstanding, they keep pumping out quality guys time and time and time again. I hope Scotland continues to pursue an academy system that’s contestable.”
O’Halloran worries too that Scottish Rugby is failing to harness a slew of fine young players in the Borders, the legendary old heartland of the game where there has not been a professional team since 2007.
The Borders have bestowed upon Scotland so many titans, from Jim Telfer to Gary Armstrong, and more recently, Darcy Graham, Greig Laidlaw, Ross Ford, Rory Sutherland and Hogg. The region can be hampered by town rivalries and parochialism, but perhaps there is something intangible in the Borders psyche that makes for especially ferocious combatants.
“I feel like the Borders is still an area that is under-utilised,” O’Halloran says. “There are some quality kids down there.
“I know it can be an insular area where they don’t like their kids to leave the Borders, but you look at Hoggy, Greig, Rory Sutherland, there are some real quality competitors that come out of the Borders and I can’t help but think there are a few gold nuggets down there that are just left unvarnished.
“Maybe Scottish Rugby should be doing a better job at identifying and showing those guys a pathway and making them realise that’s it not going to be like moving to Mars to move to Edinburgh or Glasgow from the Borders. Some of the best talent I’ve been involved with in my time in Scotland comes out of the Borders.”
In a few weeks, O’Halloran will fly home to New Zealand where his family are waiting, and ultimately, at some point, whenever coronavirus restrictions allow, on to Japan. There will be no great fanfare for him, but his guile, insight and honesty will be sorely missed.
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