FIJI HEAD COACH John McKee has emerged as a serious contender to take over from Pat Lam in charge of Connacht.
McKee spent three seasons at the Sportsground as assistant coach over a decade ago and since then has worked in a variety of positions, including stints with current IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora in Australia at various levels.
It remains to be seen if McKee, who was in charge of Fiji at the 2015 World Cup and is contracted to them until after the next tournament in Japan in 2019, can be persuaded to return to Galway.
His good working relationship with Nucifora, his experience of having worked under Stephen Nel and Michael Bradley at the Sportsground, and the fact that his wife Jennifer is from Ballina in Mayo, has strengthened suggestions that he is being sounded out for the position.
The New Zealander has travelled extensively, living large parts of his life in Australia and he came to Connacht in 2002 having worked with AS Montferrand — as Clermont Auvergne were then known — for a couple of seasons.
His familiarity with the likes of current Connacht backs coach Conor McPhillips, captain John Muldoon, domestic manager Eric Elwood — all of whom he coached — would make the transition easier, while he would also be acquainted with academy manager Nigel Carolan and current forwards coach Jimmy Duffy.
McKee, who also coached Buccaneers during his time in Ireland, left the Sportsground when Elwood was appointed assistant coach to Bradley in 2005, moving initially as head coach to Cornish Pirates and then returning to Australia.
He worked at various age grades and development stages in Australia, often with Nucifora, becoming the head coach of Central Coast Rays in the sole Australian Championship in 2007.
He worked with the Pacific Islanders and then took on a role with Tonga through to the 2011 World Cup, before resuming work in Australia in developing programmes at the national academy.
That led to him being assistant coach to the Australian U20 side at the Junior World Cup in France in 2013 before moving to Fiji, initially as high performance manager and then taking over as head coach in February 2014. He has continued in that position and was in charge when Fiji opened the 2015 Rugby World Cup against England at Twickenham 16 months ago.
He has turned down overtures from a number of quarters to stay in charge of the Fijians but a combination of his west of Ireland links, his Connacht experience and his very good working relationship with Nucifora has led to strong speculation that he is coming under pressure to return to the Sportsground and take over from Lam, who departs for Bristol at the end of this season.
– First published 06.00
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