I have put off writing this post for long enough...although nothing has been formally announced, there have certainly been enough rumblings around the media to suggest that Leo Cullen is to be the new head coach for Leinster, so I suppose it’s about time I gave some thoughts on it.
Of course to anyone who knows the game, the move would be considered a risk. Though I find some of the comparisons being made to appointments in the past to be very baffling. Steve Staunton? Eh, no. Chalk and cheese, mate.
Sure, Stan made a bucketload of appearances for and was a part of the successful times for the team he was taking over, but his involvement with the Republic of Ireland consisted of about a dozen or so appearances per season while the rest of the time he was with his club of the day.
In Leo’s case, we are not only talking about a club with which he has spent the bulk of his professional career, however unfortunate or indeed unfair his limited Ireland caps total may be, it means he has probably clocked more working hours around the provincial set-up since the start of our “glory days” than any other.
Or to put it another way...if we were to confer the title “Mr. Leinster Rugby” on any individual, I can think of no better man to receive it.
So when it comes to stepping into this role, one big advantage he has over Staunton is a near perfect knowledge of virtually every aspect of the organisation surrounding the head coach’s chair without ever actually having sat in it.
If we must compare this appointment to an iffy decision from history, I’d be more inclined to go for Martin Johnson’s for England (yes, that actually did happen, as much as the press across the water tries to airbrush it out of history). I mean the similarities are very easy to find...legendary lock/skipper who led the side to the highest honour his team could achieve.
But even that comparison has flaws - I mean, for one thing, I doubt we’ll be hearing stories of dwarves being tossed around Krystle night club any time soon!!! Joking aside...the assumption around the RFU’s decision with Johnson seemed to be that he’d be an instant success. That the spirit of 2003 was one that could be bottled and spread to future generations of players.
I think it’s pretty widely known that Leo was never the first choice for the job, and we have all heard the Who’s Who of Rugby Coaches that has been linked with the post. And given his personality I’m sure he will approach the position with an air of pragmatism as opposed to the air of arrogance that went with Johnson.
So that brings us to the next area we need to consider...how the decision of who gets the job is actually made.
With the success of Leinster and Munster in Europe since 2006, the two provinces are quite rightly considered up alongside the great outfits in European rugby like Toulouse, Leicester Tigers, Wasps and of course most recently Toulon. And it’s hard not to cross-over to the round ball game and draw comparisons to Champions League greats like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
There is absolutely no doubt that the head coach role at any of those institutions is one of an importance near to (if not more so in soccer’s case) international equivalents, and whenever those positions go on offer, the debate over who will fill them is extensive.
But here is where we must draw attention to one very important distinction. Toulouse, Wasps and Man Utd are CLUBS. The Irish provincial teams are not, at least not in the traditional sense. They are branches of the national rugby union. Many soccer clubs answer to shareholders alright but never to their football association.
At Leinster, Mick Dawson as CEO leads an extensive organization that has a mountain of work to get through from spreading the sport around the 12 counties to organizing match days to putting plans in place for improvements to the RDS Arena.
But when a big decision like a head coach appointment comes around, while I certainly wouldn't say it’s “out of their hands”, it does need to be looked at through an IRFU-wide lens rather than simply a Leinster one.
The reason I was reluctant to do this post was that I had hoped that my last one on Matt O’Connor meant I could put the matter in a box and file it away in the HoR archives to gather dust but here is where I must drag it up again if only briefly. As far as its head coaching position is concerned, Leinster Rugby together with the Leinster Professional Games Board and the IRFU had a plan already in place for this coming season...namely the last year of O’Connor’s 3-year contract.
And putting the disgruntled Leinster supporters aside just for a moment, this arrangement seemed to be one that suited everyone, given that right now, in the summer of 2015, the Prime Directive of Irish Rugby has to be preparation for our assault on the Rugby World Cup - and I sincerely hope nobody has any argument with that!
Yet now we must bring the supporters back into the equation. We can look at them two ways...the reality is that over the past 12 months there have been extremely varying opinions on Matt O’Connor’s tenure at Leinster and these have all been expressed on this site by several different contributors. Then there’s the perception that the Leinster fan base is all of one mind and never wanted O’Connor in the first place.
That external perception would still seem to hold to this day, and to be fair, when Leinster had their worst dip in form of the season during the Six Nations, more and more fans were warming to the idea that change was needed and even coming within the width of a goalpost of defeating Toulon and reaching another European final wasn’t enough to claw it back.
Given that wave of what I called “Anti-Matter” opinion, the Leinster management could well be entitled to raise an eyebrow when those same fans have qualms about anyone who assumes the role. (“Leo Nay-Sayers”?)
Say you’ve been waiting for a table at a busy restaurant and they offer you one but you don’t want to sit there because it’s too near the kitchen, so the maître d goes out of his way to find you another one, only for you to complain about that for a different reason.
Given it’s a World Cup year, the coaches with CVs worthy of a 3-time European champion outfit are all either in contracts or at least are on career paths that revolve around the four-year World Cup cycle...meaning the summer just before one is a marketplace similar to the busy restaurant I mention above. And I suspect those involved in the Leinster decision were well aware of this when they installed the word “interim” in Leo’s title, just in case. It would appear the “in case” has happened.
If we like, we can convince ourselves that we have been “stuck” with Leo. We can doom his tenure to failure before it even begins.
Or…we could pay attention to someone like Bernard Jackman, himself a table in that restaurant that is already taken. I strongly recommend you listen to his contribution on Second Captains' Monday edition but here are some of the things he had to say in Leo’s favour…
“Leo Cullen’s great strength is in powering others”
“Culture is what wins you championships and Leo Cullen is very clued into that”
“His skill set probably suits being a head coach more than being a unit coach”
I also suggest you read this post from Big Joe Shep here on this site looking at the new Leinster coaching ticket more as a “collective”. With hopefully a quality backs coach appointment on the horizon (preferably from the outside) to finish it off, it actually is quite a decent mix of talent and with someone who both “gets” the Leinster culture and has been heavily involved in making it work within the Irish framework at the helm, I definitely cannot classify the move as a “disaster” as some suggest.
On the point that he was part of the coaching staff responsible for the disappointing effort last season, it’s hard not to concede that as a negative but a bit like the point Berch makes, if we’re going to tag Leo with the ills of our pack last season then this new set-up has given responsibility to someone else so we’ve every reason to expect an improvement.
And talk of a 2- to 3- year deal also seems baffling when hearing it first, but once more we have to consider all the angles...Leinster will want the matter decided sooner rather than later, and no doubt Leo’s representatives in the negotiations will do what they can to get the most security out of the deal. It’s simply how the modern game works.
Finally as fans we have to look at our expectations for the future in general, and this coming season in particular. Are they the same as they have been in recent years? Is it really silverware or bust for us in the 2015/16 campaign? I’m not so sure.
And given all the variables surrounding the province this season...so much talent being away for the first couple of months, the possibility of some getting injured at the World Cup, the absolute stinker of a Rugby Champions Cup pool, the likelihood of limited integration time before it kicks off, the necessity of blooding a raft of promising youngsters into the senior squad...I’m not sure there’s a head coach out there who could walk fresh into the job and make it an instant success - and yes, I’m including Joe Schmidt in that list.
If I had to set a minimum target on the results front, I would go with a return to the final four of the Pro12 and at very least a decent effort to get out of that Euro pool. Does this mean Leo should lose his job if we don’t make that goal? Absolutely not. There are several other factors like the style of rugby we play and the type of team selection decisions we make to consider, but it would certainly be nice to have more than one match in May again.
So before we look away from these Leinster headlines and back towards the World Cup ones (which is absolutely what I will be doing after this post!), my advice to fellow fans would be to consider the big picture for Irish rugby at this particular time and get behind our teams both blue and green in every way we can.
Not so much a “wait and see” approach, rather a much more interactive and constructive “Come On You Boys In Blue” one. JLP
Thursday we’ll look at another reported Leinster transaction - scrumhalf Conrad Hoffman is meant to be joining us from the Sharks in Super Rugby and we spoke to the operator of the Sharksworld blog about the player’s history and prospects.