Wednesday 13 December 2017

Sinead Kissane: Aussie influence has helped to make Irish rugby what it is today

Former Munster coach Alan Gaffney Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Former Munster coach Alan Gaffney Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

A few days after Munster's Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Wasps in 2004, Jim Williams thought it was time to do some straight talking.

The Australian gave an interview in which he spoke about what he felt was holding Munster back: the province operating out of two bases and the need to invest in expert coaching.

"I can't think of any other team in the world that is set up the way we are," Williams said. "Everyone else is getting fitter and stronger and we need to keep up."

Sometimes it takes an 'outsider' to have the balls to publicly point out the obvious but Williams' influence extended well beyond that.

When he joined Munster in 2001, he brought new practices from Australia like doing extra flexibility sessions and twice-weekly massages to help his recovery.

He used to question what the fitness coaches were doing and he also changed a way of thinking.

"He said something to me one day which completely changed my attitude to training," Donncha O'Callaghan said about Williams in 'Joking Apart'. "'You can't just finish a session here now,' he said, 'and not think about training until this time tomorrow. You have to think about the session before you arrive'."


Williams focused less on the emotional side and was big on "the process of rugby. What we were going to do and how we were going to do it" (a decade later, the importance of 'process' can be heard on a daily basis among Joe Schmidt's players).

Williams' leadership in his first year carried so much weight that he was voted Munster captain by the players in a secret ballot the following season.

Before Williams was John Langford. "His impact was so strong that a lot of Langford's (lineout) calls were used for years after he left," O'Callaghan added.

"What he brought most of all was professionalism. We were still trying to learn good habits that had been common practice in Australia for years."

There has been a strong Australian influence on Irish rugby which has helped shape the game here. It was Langford (who was originally meant to join Leinster) who urged his former ACT Brumbies team-mate Williams to join Munster.

After playing, Williams became assistant coach to Declan Kidney during Munster's Heineken Cup successes with fellow Aussie Tony McGahan also on the coaching staff for the two European titles before he became head coach in the 2008/'09 season and he brought in former Brumbies boss Laurie Fisher as forwards coach.

Matt Williams was appointed Leinster head coach in 2000 with Alan Gaffney (below) joining his coaching team from the NSW Waratahs. Williams, who later became Ulster head coach, was followed at Leinster by Australians Gary Ella for a season and 10 years later by Matt O'Connor.

Gaffney took over as Munster head coach in 2002 and his former pupil Paul Warwick later joined the province from Connacht in 2007.

When Michael Cheika became Leinster boss in the 2005/'06 season, he had no hesitation in asking his former Randwick coach Gaffney to join him on the other side of the world.

When Leinster won the 2009 Heineken Cup under Cheika, Leo Cullen asked another Aussie Chris Whitaker to lift the Cup with him such was his influence.

Man of the match that day was Whitaker's former Waratahs' team-mate, the dynamic Rocky Elsom.

During his time with Leinster, Gaffney was also part of Declan Kidney's Grand Slam-winning team as well as another Australian Les Kiss who is currently Ulster's Director of Rugby.

Ulster previously had former Wallaby Justin Harrison among its players as well as Ryan Constable, who represented Australia at U-21 level, and is now one of Ireland's best-known rugby agents.

The man who is top of the tree in Irish rugby is IRFU performance director David Nucifora, former head coach of the Brumbies where he worked with Fisher.

And, yes, there are plenty more Australians who have played their part here.

Like Williams at Munster, it was Cheika's straight talking which helped to shake-up Leinster.

"One of the main reasons that Leinster turned from being talented underachievers to European champions was because Michael Cheika used to say what needed to be said. He put people on the spot," Johnny Sexton said in 'Becoming a Lion'.

"He brought the mental toughness that Leinster needed."

From Langford showing how to cool down swollen ankles with ice-cubes to Cheika introducing the use of musculoskeletal reports for Leinster players, Australians brought in new ideas through different stages of professional rugby here.

"Alan came in and looked at us differently. He felt that our ball skills needed to be improved and he was right," Ronan O'Gara said in 'My Autobiography' about Gaffney's time at Munster.

After Munster players had enjoyed European success, McGahan and Fisher brought the detail of their training to another level and continued to innovate.

"One of Laurie's theories, which I believe holds true, is that the subconscious requires three weeks to learn a new skill, and the older you are, the more you have to de-train the mind to eradicate poor technique," O'Gara said in 'Unguarded'.

O'Gara learned new skills like keeping your elbows up and pointing your hands to the target when passing.

"I think back then the Aussies were ahead of most of the world because they all came out of the Institute of Sport, where attention to detail like this seemed to be excellent," O'Gara added.

Naturally, not all players agreed with the coaching methods and traits of their Australian coaches with the argument also that some home-grown coaches lost out on potential jobs and not all 'imports' have been a success.

But most of them added and vastly improved the 'culture' here. Irish rugby also gave back to them.

Before he returned home to Australia, Jim Williams said: "It (Munster) certainly changed me as a player. It moulded me as a coach and changed my outlook on life completely, which is great."

Australian coaches and players have helped make Irish rugby what it is.

This evening at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland, once again, can show Australia just how far we've come.

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