Tuesday 26 September 2017

Brendan Fanning: Coaching merry-go-round leaves provinces in a spin

Sky Sports 3, kick-off 12.30 (Irish time), Stadio Lanfranchi

'Nobody looked happier than Pat Lam (pictured) last week when New Zealander Kieran Keane was unveiled as his successor.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Nobody looked happier than Pat Lam (pictured) last week when New Zealander Kieran Keane was unveiled as his successor.' Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If things go according to plan in Italy this afternoon Ireland's provinces will be 12 wins from 13 starts since the Six Nations window opened. On the surface that looks great, a continuation of the trend that last season saw Ireland, for the first time, squeeze all four provinces into the top six.

Back then Munster were the ones having to run to catch the bus. Since October, however, their form has been a thing of wonderment. After successive seasons of endless speculation about their coaching set-up and their lack of playing quality, now they have a rock solid look to them that was unthinkable before Rassie Erasmus arrived. He looked unfazed by the bizarre defeat to Scarlets on Friday night.

While Munster will already be working on how to keep him in Limerick long-term, across the other three provinces the traffic on the coaching highway has been flowing at an extraordinary rate, with four shifts in gear in the last two weeks alone, and a fifth flagged a long way back - but yet to hit the road.

Nobody looked happier than Pat Lam last week when New Zealander Kieran Keane was unveiled as his successor. Had the appointment turned into the musical chairs that attended the process of replacing Eric Elwood, it would have been embarrassing for all concerned.

This time it was cleaner. And if Lam had been third choice at the time, then we don't know where Keane comes. Former Munster coach Tony McGahan was certainly on their radar but was happy to stay in Melbourne. Keane's appointment took people by surprise in New Zealand as well as here.

He was in Dunedin last week preparing for the Chiefs' opening game of Super Rugby, against the Highlanders yesterday morning, so wants to be seen to be focusing on that job rather than his next one. Given that he's only just over a year in that post, as assistant, and was effusive when he landed there about what a great set-up it was and what great folks are to be found in the Waikato, either it wasn't what he thought, or else Galway has a developed a magnetic effect. Perhaps when they gave Dave Rennie's job to Greg Cooper it knocked Keane's nose out of joint. The way Lam presented it last week all Keane has to do now is fetch up and start the engine, for the route is clearly marked and everyone is on board, ready to go. Keane was assistant coach to Jamie Joseph at the Highlanders for two seasons before coaching the Tasman Makos in the ITM Cup, New Zealand's provincial competition. He then hooked up last year with Rennie - who took the Chiefs to back-to-back Super Rugby titles in 2013 and 2014 - and wasn't expected to move on so soon.

Neither did Connacht expect assistant coach Conor McPhillips to be heading off on the same ticket as Lam. It's a great opportunity for a man who has worked hard to carve out a career on the coaching side of the house. But with the departure of Andre Bell and Dave Ellis last year, both of whose work had so much to do with Connacht's success, and then Lam and McPhillips (Bell's replacement) at the end of this season, it's turned into a clear-out at the Sportsground.

Further north we had another double whammy, this one going through the in-door instead of the exit. Outward bound are Neil Doak and Allen Clarke, incoming are Dwayne Peel and Jono Gibbes.

Gibbes was a man many Leinster fans were hoping would be lured back last year when Leo Cullen was in a spin and the natives were extremely restless. When we mentioned to an interested party Gibbes's candidacy for the Ulster forwards' gig, the response was: "But that's another job as number two!"

Indeed it is. But it doesn't automatically follow that everyone who coaches embarks on that road with a view to dictating the direction for the group. Gibbes looks like a man who is perfectly happy working under a director of rugby/head coach, so long as it's a progressive set-up in a good environment where English is the first language. Last Saturday in Kingspan the mood was more positive than it's been in a while. The prospect of Gibbes joining the party next season seemed to add to the well-being. And if he has anything like the impact Stuart Lancaster has managed at Leinster then he'll have a mural painted in his honour.

In their wildest dreams Leinster couldn't have pictured this one working out so well. Summer 2016 Graham Henry fetches up for a few weeks' highly-paid consultancy, at the end of which the mood music doesn't seem very upbeat. Then Kurt McQuilkin has to head home to New Zealand and the feeling of loss is palpable. Before you know it, Lancaster is unveiled as the latest addition to the coaching team.

From the first bell the players are inspired and energised. There seems to be confusion over exactly his brief, but effectively he has the major say in how the side plays, with and without the ball.

The only bumps along the road since then have come with vacancies elsewhere. The highest profile was early last month when Leicester Tigers pushed Richard Cockerill out the door. Lancaster's family are based in Leeds, and he has no intention of shifting them over here. The commute from there to the Tigers training ground in Oadby is in the order of two hours, and doesn't involve an airport.

He's happy to keep flying however. And will do, with Leinster, until 2019 at least. The contract may as yet be unsigned but it's understood he has committed to the task. There won't be an announcement on that until some other potentially painful housework is complete.

Treviso: L Sperandio; M Tagicakibau, T Iannone, A Sgarbi (capt), A Buindonno; I McKinley, T Tebaldi; F Zani, L Bigi, T Pasqualli, T Paulo, D Budd, M Lazzaroni, R Barbieri, F Minto. Replacements: R Santamaria, M Zanusso, M Irving, L Nostran, F Ferrarini, E Francescato, A Pratichetti, D Odiete

Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, D Poolman; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham, U Dillane, J Cannon, S O'Brien, J Muldoon (capt), N Fox-Matamua. Replacements: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, J Andress, Q Roux, N Dawai; J Cooney, T Farrell, S Ili

Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)

TV: no coverage; kick-off 12.30 (Irish time), Stadio Monigo

Zebre: D Berryman; M Bellini, T Boni, M Pratichetti, L Greef; S Bordoli, G Palazzani; B Postiglioni, O Fabiani, G Roan, G Koegelenberg, V Bernabo (capt), D Bergamin, F Ruzza, K Meyer. Replacements: S Tobias, A de Marchi B le Roux, J Furno, D Fragnito, C Engelbrecht, T Castello, S Balocchi

Ulster: J Stockdale; T Bowe, L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau; P Nelson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Herring (capt), W Herbst, R Diack, A O'Connor, C Ross, P Coetzee, C Henry. Replacements: J Andrew, C Black, R Lutton, K Treadwell, S Reidy, P Marshall, J Payne, D Busby

Referee: Sean Gallagher (IRFU)

Sunday Indo Sport

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport