Sunday 4 December 2016

Tony Ward: A perfect way for our native coaches to learn their trade

Published 13/09/2016 | 02:30

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen talking to the media alongside new recruit Stuart Lancaster (right) in Belfield. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen talking to the media alongside new recruit Stuart Lancaster (right) in Belfield. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leo Cullen will be helped by having the experience of Stuart Lancaster in the Leinster set-up Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

There was a time not so long ago when even the hint of a southern hemisphere accent was a passport to a coaching job in this country.

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Certainly some dubious characters came our way as rugby agents sprung up all over the place peddling their wares after we were dragged kicking and screaming into the professional age.

Slowly but surely over the last two decades the IRFU has got its act together off the field as well as on.

Yes we still need more indigenous coaches, but we have learnt that there is no short cut to experience, irrespective of how good as a player a prospective coach may have been.

Such thoughts have been uppermost in my mind given the make-up of the coaching tickets at our provinces.

It would be great if the likes of Anthony Foley, Leo Cullen or Neil Doak could step seamlessly from playing boots into head coaching shoes. But they can't.

There is an apprenticeship to be served. That is why I have such admiration for former players who move abroad to learn their trade - the likes of Bernard Jackman, Mikey Prendergast, Aaron Dundon, Ronan O'Gara, Mark McCall, Conor O'Shea, and lest we forget, Michael Bradley, Willie Anderson and Eddie O'Sullivan too.

For Cullen, Doak and Foley it's been a particularly steep learning curve.

David Nucifora might not do everything to my liking but immense credit is due to the IRFU performance director for the coaching structures that have been evolving in all four provinces since he took control. Only Pat Lam was in situ upon his arrival.

Les Kiss has already made a big impact since taking over at Ulster.

And the arrival of Rassie Erasmus in Munster and Stuart Lancaster (from left field) at Leinster really excite me.

I still feel for Foley, given his demotion from main man in Munster to No 3 in the pecking order behind Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber (despite the 'head coach' moniker).

Against that, here is a fantastic opportunity to learn as he goes, without having to leave his native province. And the same applies to Paul O'Connell - who is involved with the Academy - and Felix Jones.

It's much too early to pass any judgement, but certainly from those close to the new training base in UL, the vibes are good.

Lancaster's arrival is a brilliant appointment. At the recent Rugby Generation X conference, the message from almost every speaker - starting with Joe Schmidt - to all parents and young players present was the need for niceness as the key personality trait.

Of course there must be a ruthlessly competitive streak underpinning that, but decency (call it good communication skills) is the foundation stone.

Lancaster is not here to be Mr Nice Guy (see how he reinvented England after the 2011 World Cup) nor is he here to unseat Cullen as No 1, but what is clear from what he has said since he arrived in Dublin is that he has been damaged by his 2015 World Cup experience.

It is obvious that he is hugely grateful for this most unexpected opportunity to make a real impact - on the field and off - at one of the great European franchises.

When I heard Kurt McQuilkin was having to leave, I feared greatly for Cullen, Girvan Dempsey and John Fogarty but Leinster have landed on their feet.

In appointing Lancaster, CEO Mick Dawson and the Professional Game Board have done a fine job.

As it happens, that ten-man Leinster Game Board has lost one of it higher-profile members in Paul Dean, who will take over from Mick Kearney as Ireland team manager after the autumn internationals.

Just like Kearney and Paul McNaughton before him, 'Deano' knows his rugby. Like McNaughton, he played in midfield. I say midfield because with St Mary's I wore No 10, while with Leinster we swapped positions, with me at inside-centre and him out-half.

Prior to that he had played at centre on the Triple Crown winning team of '82 when a certain Ollie Campbell held down the No 10 shirt.

Point being, that experience of switching between positions broadened his perspective on the game. So while Paul's main brief will be overseeing logistics, Schmidt has a very sharp rugby intellect on board.

Paul also has a firm grasp on the modern game, given his live interest through son Conor, who is making his way up through the representative ranks in the same position. Round pegs definitely fitting round holes.

Irish Independent

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