Wednesday 22 November 2017

Green brigade on front line

World-class Irish coaches were once thin on the ground, but not any longer, writes John O'Brien

Back in 2008 when the IRFU was in the process of appointing a successor to Eddie O'Sullivan as Ireland head coach, the available betting odds reflected a chilling reality about Irish rugby coaching at the time. Of the top 10 in the market you could take your pick from three Australians, two New Zealanders, two South Africans and a solitary Welshman. If staying local was your thing, Declan Kidney and Michael Bradley seemed your only options.

While Kidney seemed the logical choice, that didn't prevent a sustained gamble on Jake White, plunging the South African's odds as low as 1/2. And if that was driven, in part anyway, by the perception that Irish rugby was a relentlessly political sphere, it also reflected the widespread view that the national side would be best served by appointing a big-name foreign coach, much as the FAI had done in headhunting Giovanni Trapattoni.

Kidney's elevation didn't soften the view that, despite years of planning and investment, the IRFU still hadn't nurtured nearly enough indigenous coaches. Bradley remained at Connacht after being overlooked for the Munster job vacated by Kidney, his career rapidly approaching a crossroads. Mark McCall's reign at Ulster had petered out tamely a year earlier. It said everything that the top jobs in the three provinces were now all held by foreigners.

Yet, four years on, that apparently bleak outlook has transformed itself into something infinitely more promising. It is surely remarkable that while Munster and Leinster both have foreign coaches at the helm, Irish-born coaches could yet play a decisive part in the outcome of this year's Heineken Cup, a state of affairs that could scarcely have been envisaged when Jake White was an odds-on shot to be the next Ireland coach.

When they entertain Leicester at Ravenhill on Friday, an Ulster side making stealthy progress under the guidance of Brian McLaughlin and David Humphreys will be seeking to build on last year's momentum by planting a firm foot in the quarter-finals of the tournament. And if things work out elsewhere there's every chance that McCall's Saracens, Bradley's Edinburgh and a Harlequins team expertly led by Conor O'Shea could throw shapes about joining them.

Leave aside for a moment the underlying reasons as to why this should be happening it is unquestionably a healthy state of affairs for Irish rugby. "It reflects well on the game here," says Allen Clarke, the IRFU's high-performance manager. "It's a testament to the quality of the people we have here and the work that goes on. The coaching programmes put in place by Stephen Aboud and Colin Moran are as good as anywhere else in the world."

Clarke is a product of that coaching system and was assistant to McCall during his three years at Ulster, a successful partnership that delivered a Celtic League title and won far more games than it lost. And if sustained progress in Europe eluded them and McCall left with a dent in his reputation, Clarke never had any doubt that he would pick up the pieces and achieve success someplace else.

"Mark's a pragmatist," Clarke says. "He knew his time was up at Ulster and the way he handled it showed great maturity. He picked up a role in Castres and that experience was invaluable to him. Then he got a break when his ex-London Irish team-mate Brendan Venter brought him to Saracens. Brendan would have spotted that potential years ago so it doesn't surprise me one bit he's done so well."

If you wanted to quibble with the IRFU -- and plenty always do -- then it is easy to point out that McCall, alongside Bradley and O'Shea, has considerably enhanced his standing at a club outside the Union's jurisdiction. While this is true, however, it doesn't necessarily follow that the IRFU has somehow missed a trick. Professional rugby is a small village and it would be an impossible dream to develop an army of capable coaches and hope to contain them within the system.

The IRFU could remind us, too, that McCall and Bradley and those who might want to follow in their footsteps -- Eric Elwood, Anthony Foley, Reggie Corrigan among others -- have all qualified as Level 3 coaches under its guidance and been given a hand to get themselves on the ladder. Yet there's only so much husbandry the Union can do and a time comes when coaches have to be set adrift and tested to see if they can stand on their own two feet.

There's no doubt that being a young, ambitious rugby coach in Ireland can be a frustrating profession. You enhance your knowledge and your confidence, achieve results and gain a favourable impression among the powers that be. And then what? You wait and you wait for an opportunity that, as Bradley can no doubt testify, might never arrive. Your time runs out and you are left rifling through your contacts book to see what opportunities might lie elsewhere.

It would hardly be surprising if, deep down, both McCall and Bradley harboured some resentment about how their time ended in Ireland. When he finished with Ulster, McCall hadn't long turned 40 and that is a young age to be wondering whether your coaching graph has any more upward curves in it. Yet McCall was tough enough to survive and smart enough to realise his education still had gaps that needed to be filled.

"I'd speak to Mark fairly regularly," says Clarke, "and he always says he's still learning, even now. I remember Ian McGeechan telling us as players that the day we thought we knew it all was the day we should get out. That stayed with me. I think the experiences Mark has had have toughened him up and stood to him. They've made him a better coach. I'm sure he'd say that himself."

For Bradley, it has been a long and sometimes arduous road to his current position. He arrived in Connacht in 2003, never imagining he'd spend seven years there trying desperately to prove his worth, regularly enduring sustained criticism of his coaching ability and, much worse than that, unfounded suggestions that his family connection to Noel Murphy, a senior IRFU figure, gave him an unfair advantage over other home-grown coaches.

Last summer, Bradley arrived in Edinburgh to the indifference of supporters who had set their sights on Eddie O'Sullivan. Yet after an indifferent start in the Pro12, the passion and discipline he has brought has quickly won them over and should they beat Racing Metro next Saturday, not impossible by any stretch, Edinburgh would be on target for a place in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup for only the second time in 14 years.

For sure, Bradley would look back on his time with Connacht with mixed feelings. Yet for all the Union's perceived neglect of the province, its value as a breeding ground for coaches is proven. What better way for a young coach to prove himself than at a club with poor resources, where every game is a battle of wits against a coach with more money and better players. It stood to O'Sullivan and Warren Gatland and, in time, it should stand to Elwood too.

Ultimately, the best coaches make do with what they have and there is a certain truth to the old saying that they are born rather than made. As players, McCall, Bradley, O'Shea and Humphreys were part of the same Ireland set-up and now they are foremost among a bright new generation of coaches this side of the world. And maybe it's not entirely co-incidental that it should have turned out like that.

Clarke remembers when McCall, O'Shea and Humphreys were team-mates of Venter's at London Irish and, even then, in their shared interest in the science of the game, their thirst for knowledge and improvement, you could see the signs of their future careers. The Union didn't nurture that, of course. The raw materials were already there. They only needed to be knocked into shape.

At the end of the day it shouldn't matter if they have to go into flight in order to progress their careers. Such is the dearth of English coaching talent at present, that O'Shea was regarded by many as an ideal replacement for Martin Johnson. It is a good place to be right now. McCall is part of a brilliant set-up at Saracens and will emerge from there as close to the finished article as he's likely to get.

That's saying something for a coach who might have been finished at the top level at 40. Looking back, McCall was young enough to have got the Ulster job when he did and that's the ever-present danger. England took a gamble on an unproven 38-year-old coach and, now that it has backfired, what will become of Johnson's career?

With proper care and attention, such gambles should never be necessary. Warren Gatland was just 35 when the IRFU appointed him Ireland coach and, for all the good he did, it was Wales rather than Ireland who got the best out of an unquestionably talented coach. It's no harm to keep them waiting. If you believe the rumours, Anthony Foley is in line to succeed Tony McGahan at the end of the season, but you wonder whether Munster would play so fast and loose with a coach's career at such a tender stage of its development.

All told, these aren't bad things to be worrying about. Think of the day, not tomorrow or next week, when Kidney announces his departure and the questions that would follow. Would O'Shea be a shoo-in if he wanted it? Would Bradley's age and experience count for more? If McCall delivered a Heineken Cup and another Premiership title for Saracens, would he push himself to the head of the queue? Would McGahan or Joe Schmidt be around to present viable foreign options?

Who knows? But there is one thing we can predict with certainty. Nowhere in the process will Jake White, for all his class and experience, trade as an odds-on favourite.

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