Sunday 4 December 2016

The Coaching Revolution

The stories of Leinster’s seven coaches in Heineken Cup era mirror that of the province says Hugh Farrelly

Hugh Farrelly

Published 20/05/2011 | 05:00

Baby steps

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Leinster's first European Cup outing was on All Saints Day (November 1) 1995, but there were few saints to be found in their torrid tussle with Milan at the Stadio Comunale Giurali.

The official ERC records state that Ciaran Callan was head coach, but, in fact, it was former Skerries, Leinster and Ireland second-row Jim Glennon, with ex-Old Wesley hooker Callan in charge of the forwards and former St Mary's and Ireland out-half Paul Dean overseeing the backs.

The 'Battle of Milan' is burned into Glennon's memory -- it was a hell of an introduction to European competition.

"I can still picture it," says Glennon. "It was played on a raggedy ground on a wet Wednesday afternoon in front of around 400 people. Ciaran and myself had travelled over to watch Milan a few weeks previously and it was one of the best decisions we ever took because we came back with an entirely different game plan.

"Milan were a dirty, cynical side with a big pack who tried to bully opponents and we knew we needed hard men, who were thin on the ground in Leinster at the time.

"We decided to pick Chris Pim at blindside and made him captain and picked Dean Oswald, the Kiwi playing for Blackrock and a proper hard nut, on the other flank. It was a filthy match, Wally (Paul Wallace) got a horrible gouging and there were sneaky digs going on all over the park, but the lads pulled it out of the fire and Pim proved he was the man.

"Conor O'Shea, Malcolm O'Kelly and Niall Woods were over in London Irish and we had huge rows with (then Exiles coach) Clive Woodward, only getting them two days before the European matches. But Woodward was a pro and we were struggling to emerge from the amateur days.

"We got to the semi-final and lost to Cardiff in a deluge at Lansdowne Road. We obviously were not expected to reach the final because Ireland had a tour to the US and a Test on the same day as the final, so if we qualified to face Toulouse we wouldn't have had our international players.

"Utterly unrecognisable," adds Glennon, when recalling those early days.

"In football terms, you wouldn't even say it was League Of Ireland versus Premiership, more like Leinster Senior League versus Premiership."

"When I came back as head coach I insisted that the coaches would run the show. The old system where you had a five-to-seven-man selection committee from around the clubs was an Irish idiosyncrasy which adhered to that great oxymoron of 'pure politics'.

"Leinster were far from a professional outfit. Training was in the evening after work, twice a week at most, and we had no facilities of our own, using Old Wesley or Bective Rangers at Donnybrook.

"There was a huge inferiority complex. Llanelli, Swansea, Bath and Leicester were the teams people were watching on BBC's 'Rugby Special' and it was just assumed they were better than us. But there were still signs of what was to come and in 1997 we beat the great Leicester team of Richards, Johnson and Cockerill in a packed Donnybrook when Kurt (McQuilkin) was captain and Trevor (Brennan) had one of his big games.

"I believe that was the night Leinster launched themselves with the Dublin public and showed what could be.

"I remember playing Toulouse over there when Mike Ruddock was coach and at one point Toulouse opted to kick a penalty rather than go for the try. Mike turned to me and said: "That's progress."

Mike's mechanics

A stint with Bective Rangers helped Mike Ruddock become Leinster's director of rugby in 1997 and the Welshman increased the province's slow ascent to fulfilment at a time when the club game still held sway.

Although he failed to bring Leinster to the Heineken Cup knock-out stages, there were good days against Leicester and Stade Francais, and Friday Heineken Cup nights at Donnybrook became significant occasions on the Irish rugby calendar.

Ruddock also brought through talented youngsters like Dempsey, D'Arcy, O'Driscoll and Horgan who would go on to become 'the golden generation,' while his own coaching skills were confirmed five years after his departure when he led Wales to the 2005 Grand Slam.

Matt fails to finish

Munster's European dramas were well under way by 2003, but a draw that placed Leinster in Lansdowne Road for quarter, semi and final seemed to lay it on a blue plate.

They had been playing some lovely stuff under Matt Williams, who had replaced Ruddock in 2000, and the Australian's insistence on improved standards off the pitch was having beneficial effects.

However, it all went horribly wrong in that 2003 semi-final against Perpignan when Leinster appeared to quail in the face of potential glory and Williams soon departed to take over the Scotland national team.

Ella and back

The former Wallaby had a fine playing pedigree, but little head coach experience.

Injuries to key players did not help his cause, but Gary Ella never seemed comfortable with the squad and the results testified to that unease over the course of a difficult season.

Although Leinster won four of their six pool games, defeat at home to Sale cost them qualification and Ella was let go after one season.

His legacy is Gordon D'Arcy being transformed from a back-three utility man to centre sensation.

Stake in Kidney

When Declan Kidney was squeezed out of Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland regime, he needed a new coaching gig and when the Newport-Gwent Dragons did not work out, Leinster snapped him up.

A Munster man to the core, Leinster never appeared to be a natural fit, and one of his first actions was to do away with the 'Lions' tag that he used to use as a motivational tool during his time with Munster.

However, Kidney's coaching excellence was enough to ensure third place in the Celtic League and an unbeaten Heineken Cup pool performance.

Leicester ended their European interest abruptly in Lansdowne Road and Kidney, with family reasons necessitating a return to Cork, left to rejoin Munster (receiving some over-the-top criticism on the way), where he won two Heineken Cups in three years before graduating to Ireland and a Grand Slam in his first season.

High five

Michael Cheika's arrival in 2005 sparked a flurry of "Michael who?" queries and confusion over the spelling of his surname, but, over the course of five years at the helm, the Australian revolutionised Leinster rugby.

Caught on the hop by Munster in his first season in charge, Cheika increased the levels of professionalism in all aspects of preparation and set about introducing a hard edge to the forward play (led by the reacquisitions of Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings from Leicester) that proved to be the final piece in the Leinster jigsaw.

Installing McQuilkin as defence coach and hiring countryman Rocky Elsom on a one-year deal were inspired decisions, and Heineken Cup glory was finally attained in 2009.

Had a chance to repeat the trick the following season, but injuries and an underpowered scrum proved too much, despite a brave performance in the semi-final against Toulouse. Left Leinster in a much better state than he had found it.

No ordinary Joe

Cheika was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Joe Schmidt has managed to raise the bar once more and, though Northampton have the capacity to upset the odds, the Kiwi deserves to lead Leinster to their second European title tomorrow.

Leinster's first Heineken Cup coach has certainly been impressed by their latest.

"I haven't met the guy, but I have a lot of respect for what he has achieved already," says Glennon.

"When Leinster lost a few games at the start, he got a ridiculous time of it from sensationalists with pens, completely unwarranted, and he responded brilliantly.

"What has most impressed me about Joe is his bold and brave use of the bench, as he showed after 52 minutes in the semi-final against Toulouse and with the double substitution against Munster at Lansdowne back in October, the game that turned Leinster's season around.

"It is going to be very tough against Northampton and the big question is obviously will O'Driscoll start and how long will he last. But Tom Wood is a big loss for Northampton, an understated player, but an important one for them.

"It could come down to Leinster having the better bench -- it will be an energy-sapping battle up front and Leinster have quality props to come in and do a job, that is crucial."

Irish Independent

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