Thursday, July 02, 2015

8 Reasons For Embracing Leinster's New Coaching "Collective"

by Big Joe Shep

Ok, well to coincide with the Leinster squad returning to training on 01 Jul 15 and following on from my last piece at the end of the fraught period that was last season, when I opined there WERE Reasons To Be Cheerful, I thought we could look at why we should embrace the decision to have what is De Facto a “Coaching Collective” for the forthcoming season and why it might just reinvigorate the whole setup at Dublin 4.


Leinster had their worst season in 11 years, finished outside the playoffs for the first time since they were introduced to the Celtic / Pro 12 league and through a combination of a totally negative, defensive approach to playing rugby (and I use the term “Playing Rugby” in the loosest term!) coupled with mismanagement of players, both experienced and developing, meant that for many players, their performances whilst excellent in the main for Ireland, for the Province were some of the worst we’d ever seen. One such example was Rob Kearney who for me simply failed to spark in the blue jersey? He wasn’t the only one though! There was no team ethos, no thought processing on the field, no adaptation to events as they unfolded, no ownership of responsibility by either individual or collective. In sum………...after last season, only way is up!


The issue that (appears) to have hit Leinster is that they were caught out by Matt O’Connor failing to produce the goods and at the end of the season when they agreed to part company, they had no Plan B in place? If they did, it was and indeed still is being held extremely close to their chest or to Mick Dawson, the CEOs chest?

There’s the Guinness Series followed by the Rugby World Cup (RWC) after which I suspect there may be 1 or 2 availabilities. That said, why should a team like Leinster make do with whoever is available? They should be looking out and seeing which of the top coaches are coming available within the next 12 - 18 months, who the rising stars are and creating a shortlist of potentials to which the the feelers are already being put out (Same as Isa Nacewa did with Saint Joe Schmidt and as he has recently done with potential solutions for a new Head Coach).

I believe it will be difficult for a coach to come into the setup once the season has started in the same way as it clearly wasn’t easy for the players adapting back in from international duty last season.


When Leinster DO choose a new Head Coach, then it must be someone who can work closely with IRFU / Joe Schmidt and get that actually within Irish rugby, your first choice players should be the seasoned seniors who are either not selected for Ireland, are Non Irish Qualified (NIQ), “A” Team and Academy as a large part of your squad will be away with the National squad for extended periods. That way you can are fully at ease with inculcating and developing the next generation of players and exploiting the IRFU player management system through what is effectively a squad rotation.

Here’s another idea, each position should have 2 - 3 players allocated with overlaps to other positions and the most senior elite level players should be assigned as mentors to those left behind. They should keep in touch with their nominated mentorees regularly whether they’re physically in Dublin 4 or not. In addition they are also in touch with the relevant coaches for that individual's position, fitness staff, welfare (if required)etc. Watching the games their mentorees have played in, advice and direction, regular contact with key staff are all part of the overall player / team development and adds value. What a closeness that would bring AND it supports the entire coaching staff. It not only adds to the overall “ownership of Responsibility” that was clearly lacking at Leinster last season, but creates the environment for potential development into coaching / management of the senior / mentoring player. Just a thought.


So who is in the coaching “Collective” who are capable of taking this forward and why it will work at least for the next season;

1. Interim Head Coach:   Leo CULLEN

Leo’s track record is well known. Following retirement in 2013 after a career that saw 220 games for Leinster and capped for Ireland, he was appointed Forwards Coach under Matt O’Connor. An extremely highly rated and widely respected player and individual, Leo has captained at all levels of the game and being thrust into the interim head coach role with the correct support around him in both coaching staff and players, he will I believe develop quickly and oversee a positive environment where an open, attacking and Leinster “style” of play will flourish. Oh for for those who think he isn’t capable (and you know who you are lol), he only had 1 season so far and that was a heavily restricted one I believe under O’Connor where Leo had to both learn a new trade/skillset and try and fit into a negative, defensive structure. Given the other 7 in this “Collective”, I reckon we’ll see a different Leo………….  

2. Scrum Coach / Forwards: John FOGARTY

Having played some 157 times for Munster, Connacht and Leinster as well as being capped by Ireland “A” on 12 occasions and a single full cap, John Fogarty retired from his hooking duties owing to injury in 2010. Having held the role of Elite Player Development Officer since he retired John was also the forwards coach for the hugely successful “A” team in their back to back winning British & Irish Cup championships, working closely with Girve the Swerve Dempsey who was the “A” Team / Academy Manager for both those triumphs and will know each other well. More recently, he has been the the forwards coach for the Irish Under 20s side. He is also therefore both acutely tuned to the requirements of Leinster rugby at all levels, but clearly has the backing of the IRFU.

3. Defence Coach:    Kurt McQUILKIN
New Zealander McQuilkin played some 32 times for Leinster, 5 for his adopted Ireland and was also Defence Coach under Michael Cheika and was part of the backroom team that brought a first ever Heineken Cup to the province in 2009. With an excellent defensive record from his time as player, captain and Defence Coach at Leinster means he also has an acute understanding of what it will take to bring Leinster back to top form. Whilst potentially only here for 2 months, I suspect there may be a longer relationship to this!

4. Backs Coach: Girvan DEMPSEY

Well what do you say about the credentials of someone who has played 198 occasions for his Province, 82 for his country, is the 4th most capped Irish player AND Irish try scorer in history and has held roles as Elite Player Development Officer and the hugely successful double B & I Cup winning side as Academy / “A” team Manager. A charismatic individual who is hugely respected and a natural leader, Girve the Swerve will just simply add value as the Backs Coach..

5. Senior Skills & Kicking Coach: Richie MURPHY

As Senior Skills & Kicking Coach, Murphy has helped to develop the home grown talent of individuals such as Jonny Sexton and Ian Madigan. He is currently working as part of Saint Joe Schmidt's Ireland coaching staff leading up to the Rugby World Cup but will return after that. Having played Out Half for Leinster and held both position of Rugby Development Officer and Elite Player Development Officer where he oversaw the province's underage development programme, he is qualified first hand to understand the benefits of getting the  youngsters heavily involved and inculcated in the senior squad. Again this fits well with the number of promotions from the Academy team for the coming season and the links with Joe Schmidt / IRFU goes a long way to the One-Team approach.

6. Player / Support Coaching: Isa NACEWA

Now for some reading this, they’ll say “But Isa IS NOT in a coaching role?”......Perhaps not (yet) formally, but being one of the most successful players ever at Leinster, the experience and reputation he has, the links around the rugby world that allowed him to suggest that it was a good opportunity for Leinster to look at the possibility of Joe Schmidt coming to Leinster and indeed in recent times, he has I understand been part of the interaction over the potential role of Highlanders coach Tony Brown with Leinster. I think it’s fair to say that a number of things have brought Isa back to his beloved Leinster and that he will be here for a lengthy period. Will he adapt back to playing after 2 years in retirement? I think he’ll do very well and together his experience, skillset and more recent coaching skills with the Auckland Blues will mean he is definitely part of the coaching setup at Leinster albeit in an unofficial capacity.  

7. Team Manager: Guy EASTERBY 

Retired Scrum Half Easterby played 55 times for Leinster and 28 for Ireland. As Team Manager, he is pivotal in a number of key areas. As a coaching “Collective”, what will work is utilising the entire experience that this “Collective” brings to the party. Guy will be an integral part of that.
8. Player/Motivator: Johnny SEXTON

Well what to say…………..110 caps for Leinster with a massive 1027 points, 62 caps for Ireland / Ireland “A” and 3 for the British and Irish Lions and still only 29. JS10 returns from a 2 year spell in France with Racing Metro (or indeed Racing 92 as they are now) and it will have been a great learning period for him. Having watched the TV documentary on Ronan O’Gara and having read BODs autobiography, it is fair to say that our Johnny doesn’t take things, especially his rugby lightly but then that’s what makes elite professional athletes as successful as they are. The speech he is said to have given at the half time period in the Heineken Cup Final against Northampton when we were 22-6 down is by all accounts one of those that a General going into the last phase battle heavily outnumbered, outfought and on their proverbial final legs would have given. It did the trick and we overcame with 27 unanswered points and JS10 scoring a total of 28 points and 2 tries in the game. Now as I’ve written previously about the difference between an Army of Lions lead by a Sheep being defeated by an Army of Sheep lead by a Lion refers to just this chap. A naturally gifted player, leader, motivator and on-field coach, with Jonny back in the side, it’s a great opportunity to move forward.

In Sum:

There you are, 8 reasons for us to be looking forward to a reinvigorated Leinster Rugby team for the 2015 / 16 season. Let’s be patient and take our time in finding a new Head Coach. Perhaps after all, a Director of Rugby might be more appropriate with the potential of the 8 above.

Sometimes in any walk of life, small but significant tactical changes can have a pronounced strategic effect. Perhaps these 8 tactical changes can be just that? Also in a vastly changing world, flatline structures in organisations, connected parties with a common aim and similar views come together in a Joint Venture to achieve a desired endstate. There is still a quasi hierarchical structure but it’s not dependent on it to work as with traditional structures. It’s dependant on the people, their positivity, their outlook and vision, the ability to develop both as a team and with a team. Bottom line is, if something doesn’t work, find something that does and re-write the rule book!

For me, I’m more than happy that the 8 in the coaching “Collective”, combined with a crop of promoted Academy players, a few “Reasonably Good” signings in JS10, Isa and Mick Kearney from Connacht will be and indeed is, a hugely positive step forward. If the 8 get things right with the availability of talent they have, create the right atmosphere and positive environment which WILL lead to results, the returning internationals will be fighting for their own positions in a Provincial shirt! Let’s hope for that.


The Big Fella

@bigjoeshep is the Owner and Head of Information & Knowledge Management atDigital Knowledge Zone.   An avid Leinster & Ireland Rugby fan, he came to rugby at the late age of 24, was a tight head prop, had at least 2 good runs in every game and retired at only 36 after 3 operations on his legs and now forms the 4th "virtual" person in a front row each time his beloved teams are playing (much to the annoyance of his suffering girlfriend who has to put up with being "embraced" by the Big Fella at each scrum!!!)


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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019