August 19, 2015
When it was announced that Matt O'Connor was leaving Leinster the press were immediately drawing up lists of prospective candidates to fill the position. A lot of the obvious names were being bandied around; Robbie Deans, Ewan McKenzie, Jake White and Conor O'Shea. There were a number of slightly more realistic coaches mentioned like Bernard Jackman and Jonno Gibbs. The sad reality was, however, that none of these possible successors were ever likely to take up a position at Leinster. Leinster has never appointed a high profile coach before so the likes of Deans, McKenzie and White were out on that basis. O'Shea isn't a coach at Quins, he's more of a team manager like Guy Easterby. Jackman and Gibbs are contracted in France for at least the next season, 2 in Jackmans case. Gibbs already turned down the role of head coach as well so he was always an outside bet.
The only name that was floated that seemed to fit was that of Tony Brown from the New Zealand side the Highlanders. An innovative backs coach who was part of turning Highlanders from bottom dwellers to Super Rugby champions would have been a fantastic appointment. Sadly Brown ruled himself out. It's likely he has ambitions at home that he can fulfil without the need for going abroad, especially given the attention he is getting following the Highlanders impressive season. That Leinster approached him was a good sign though as it shows the kind of coach they wanted to get in. That they couldn't find one is a slight worry. But ahead of a season were most the first strength team are going to be away for over half the season it was always going to be hard to get a quality coach on such short notice.
And it seemed that was the case when Murray Kinsella reported that the Leinster Professional Games Board were surprised at the lack of interest from quality coaches (see article here). Were they too optimistic about Leinsters attractiveness ahead of what was always going to be a tough season regardless of the coach? And where did that leave Leinster?
WHAT ABOUT LEO?
Leo was appointed as the interim head coach while the search for a replacement was ongoing. However he wasn't seriously considered as a long term replacement by anyone initially. And rightly so. He has absolutely no head coach experience at all. In fact the sum total of his coaching experience was last season as forwards coach. And many had issues with him being promoted to that role too quickly. Leinsters forwards didn't have their best season, but then I suppose neither did their backs. There were issues with Leinsters maul and their breakdown work in particular. That start wouldn't encourage a huge amount of faith in Leo to be able to take over the head coach role successfully. Having such a novice take charge is always going to be a big risk, to not even have positive references from what little experience there is only serves to increase the risk. Those with serious reservations about Leo getting the job have plenty of logic on their side.
All of that said however it should also be remembered that Leo was the most successful captain in Leinsters history, and one of the most successful captains in European club rugby history. He's known as someone who drives a hard working culture and commands respect. Last season he was working under a head coach who, from everything we've heard, had a far more relaxed approach to managing the players. It wasn't Leos place in this instance to address the culture issues that seemingly crept into the club during O'Connors tenure. You just need to read Shane Jennings interview recently (see article here) to see that he feels Leinster could use more of a disciplinarian, which from what we do know of Leo is exactly what he'll bring. Leo is also a Leinster man through and through. He knows the place, he knows the people and he knows what it takes to win trophies. Whether he can apply that as head coach remains to be seen, but a lot of the raw ingredients are there.
And while the Jennings interview indicates that some former players are not totally convinced that Leo is ready to step up to the mark there have been positive noises from other quarters. Sexton and Ross have come out in favour of the appointment (here and here). Although what else are they going to say as current players? Denis Hickie has backed Leo as head coach, albeit with the right assistant coach(es) to help him out (see article here). It's just a case of finding and getting them on board.
So who has he got? Well Richie Murphy is staying put as Skills & Kicking Coach, however he'll be away with Ireland for much of the season. John Fogarty has been promoted to Scrum Coach having worked with the Academy under Girvan Dempsey and as an Elite Player Development Officer. His experience at this level is limited to his playing career, however he has been involved in a lot of work nationally on things like scrum technique workshops etc. Kurt McQuilkin has rejoined the province as Defence Coach. Those who know McQuilkan will be happy with that given his record last time out with Leinster under Cheika (and his personality!) however it should be noted that he has been out of the game professionally for a few years. At the moment Girvan Dempsey is Backs Coach while Leo assesses his options on that front.
All told the coaching set-up is fairly light on experience, with Richie Murphy being the senior man on that front. Dempsey will be looking to impress in his interim role with a view to possibly taking on the Backs Coach role full-time however Leinster could probably do with some more experience there. That said the talk at the moment is all about "The Leinster Way", which is something that many Leinster fans would be delighted to hear.
When Matt O'Connor resigned/got the sack/left by mutual consent Leinster just didn't have the time to replace him. They had a maximum of 3 months to identify, interview and appoint a candidate, and even this would have meant the new coach missing the entire pre-season. Discussions with candidates needed to have happened far earlier in the season. And while we have it good authority that there were at least some discussions had, none of them had much substance to them because Leinster had not decided whether MOC was staying on or not. This seriously limited Leinsters options straight away. And it would seem that Leo was not their first preference by a distance.
All of this has meant that Leinster have had to promote from within to a large degree, falling back on inexperienced coaches instead of attracting the talent they really wanted. This certainly isn't an encouraging situation. And while there are a lot of the raw ingredients there in the guys who have been appointed, chances are very much against them being a success. Leinster have made this bed for themselves though, and now they must lie in it.
As fans we can but look on and hope. It is important that we have realistic expectations for this season. Even with a top coach we were always going to have a hard time with the internationals away for so long. Now with inexperienced coaches we simply have to expect that it will be a tough season. And then there's that Champions Cup pool! It's not where (m)any of us would have wanted to be going into the season, but it's done now. Time to get behind Leo and the guys and hope they can prove doubting Thomas's like me wrong. As I said above a lot of the raw ingredients are there, and if Leo can pass on even a fraction of his tenacity and drive it could be a good thing for a Leinster side that seems to have lacked discipline and focus for some time now.