by Kevin O’Brien
It’s a huge year for rugby with the impending World Cup filling all our minds. Excitement is building nicely to what promises to be a memorable competition. Here’s hoping Joe Schmidt can continue to work his magic. However in the midst of all the World Cup (WC) hype there is the small matter of the kick off of the Pro 12 and other domestic leagues. I for one can’t wait for the league to kick start and I have to say it’s good to be looking at the new season in a positive light from a Leinster perspective, especially after the struggles of last year and the resulting upheaval.
I’ll be honest from the start and say I was very vocal in my dislike of the O’Connor era. I was one of those ‘spoilt’ Leinster fans, a ‘key board warrior’ who dared voice my opinion on the style (or lack thereof) rugby Leinster played under MOC. Suffice to say I very happy when he & Leinster had their conscious uncoupling. Initially I was excited at thoughts of one of the exotic coaches from down under, whom were linked with the position of Head Coach taking over. Indeed there were some very exciting names linked like Robbie Deans, Tony Brown etc. But as the closed season stretched into the new season it became apparent that such an appointment wasn’t going to happen. So whether by design or accident we have Leo Cullen as our new Head Coach. He will be ably backed by the very welcome return of Kurt McQuilkin, by John Fogarty and initially anyhow Girvan Dempsey. It probably wasn’t the coaching ticket fans or the Leinster hierarchy had in mind in the immediate aftermath of O’Connor’s sacking but here we are.
Maybe it is blind faith or wishful thinking but I just think we are in for a positive, all be it very difficult season. Cullen’s lack of coaching experience is a worry and as we know a significant number of the senior squad will be missing for large chunks of the season. So it’s going to be an incredibly difficult start forLeo and his team. However I have a good feeling for this new set up and the future for Leinster rugby.
Whilst I don’t particularly like the way the mainstream media harp on about the new management knowing the ‘Leinster Way’ all of the coaches understand what is expected by the very demanding & vocal fan base given their long association with the province. They will have their ideas about how the team will play but will also be cognisant of the team’s history & style of play. I’m not naive enough to think that we will suddenly start to throw the ball around like the glob trotters and will start scoring tries for fun. But I do think to think that under the new coaching team and with the return of Sexton we will see a return to a more attacking style of play as opposed to the sterile, dour and unexciting play of last season. Certainly I take encouragement from what I’ve heard and read from Cullen in this regard.
Alongside Cullen the hiring of McQuilkin was a very astute appointment. He was highly involved as defence coach when Leinster were transformed from a team of ‘Lady Boys’ to European Champions under Michael Cheika who was then another rookie coach . So he knows exactly what is required to turn around the fortunes of the team. Then there is the return of not one but two prodigal sons with Sexton & Isa back in Blue. This should add an extra dimension to the team’s attacking ability which was sadly lacking last year. It will also greatly improve the on field leadership. Isa, who by all accounts looked extremely sharp last week against Ulster, will be very important for us when the Irish players are away which will be often this season.
I’m also encouraged that it seems the progression of the younger players appears to be a priority for the management team. Certainly Cullen has indicated that these players are very important to how he sees Leinster developing under his tenure and he has had the players heavily involved with the senior squad in pre season. One of the reasons for this is out of necessity due to Ireland call ups but I genuinely feel this management team will be better disposed to developing and nurturing the talents of the likes of Ringrose, Ross Byrne, Leavy, Kelleher the Byrne brothers and the other very talented players on the fringes and in the academy structure. They will be the next generation of Leinster and hopefully Ireland players and they need to be brought along carefully. I’m very far from an expert on these matters but from what I’ve seen of these guys to date the talent is there for future success and it’s up to the management team (and the players themselves) to ensure these guys come through. I feel that they will get a better chance under the new regime to prove themselves. For me bar the odd exception MOC was reluctant for whatever reason to trust in his younger players. Girvan Dempsey has had a very important role in the careers of these players to date and it’s good to see that he is involved albeit on a short term basis in the new management set up. His presence can help ease the transition from academy / B&I player to senior squad member.
The new management team will also be very used to the mechanisms of how the players are managed under IRFU protocols so this issue, whilst highly frustrating especially in a WC year, should cause less friction with the IRFU overlords. Even if there are problems it’s hard to see Cullen openly moaning to the press the way his predecessor did. I’m pretty sure all conversations in this regard would be kept in house and I would imagine Cullen would also have a better working relationship with Schmidt albeit the dynamic will now be different.
Another factor that gives me cause for optimism is the depth of the squad. Yes there will be 15 or so players away with Ireland but even taking this into account the squad remains strong with a good mix of youth and experience. We will still be able to field the likes of Isa, McCarthy, McLaughlin, Ryan, Luke McGrath, Conan, McFadden, Darcy, Te’o, Reid & one or 2 more who might be left out by Ireland. Add to this list the previously mentioned very hungry younger players who now have a management team in place who I think has faith in them and I feel we will be very competitive in the early stages of the league. I’ve always enjoyed the 6 nations period when Ireland players have been away to see if any of the young / fringe players can make a name for themselves and the world cup period offers a real chance for guys to put their hands up and put pressure on the Irish contingent when they return. I’m looking forward to seeing just who can take their opportunity..
It is widely acknowledged that Cullen was a great on field leader. However if the trials and tribulations of Martin Johnson in his time as England coach are anything to go by a great on field leader does not necessarily make for a great coach. At least as Head Coach he will be able to do things his way, put his structures in place and gather his own team around him. He will now be fully responsible for the way the team play strategy is employed etc as opposed to helping deliver another coach’s vision. It’s a steep learning curve having only given up playing 18 months ago. Will he be up to the task? I guess we will know soon enough. But as unscientific as it might sound my gut feeling is that he will be a success. The man has a track record of succeeding in his playing career and whilst this is a far more difficult task he is undertaking it is one I feel he is well capable of. There might be difficult time’s en-route but ultimately I think, and hope we will be judging Leo Cullen’s time in charge as a success.
Make no mistake about it the season ahead is daunting given the generally inexperienced coaching set up, the amount of players away with Ireland during both the WC and Six Nations. The Pro 12 last season was probably the most competitive yet and hopefully will continue to improve. The group we are in the European Cup with is incredibly difficult. It will be a baptism of fire for Leo’s Lions (sorry) but I for one am very much looking forward to the new season in a very positive frame of mind & with renewed optimism. Come on you boys in Blue.
Kevin O’Brien (@marywards) : Rugby mad Leinster man exiled in Connaught. Father of 3 with wife who hates sport but tolerates rugby.
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