Thursday 22 February 2018

Henry’s Leinster link gets Pope’s blessing

World Cup winner's input will be 'invaluable' to Cullen

Brent Pope at the launch of the Pieta 100 cycle at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Brent Pope at the launch of the Pieta 100 cycle at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Three years ago, Brent Pope was building houses in a poverty-stricken quarter of Buenos Aires alongside former Leinster and Argentina great Felipe Contepomi and talked turned towards the great out-half's introduction to recently retired World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry.

"Something special is beginning to happen for us," Contepomi told Pope of another radical re-building.

Sure enough, Argentina would, at the next World Cup, ultimately humiliate the reigning European champions, Ireland, at the quarter-final stage.

A nation which at one stage prided itself on brute forward aggression and nefarious play in the tight was transformed into a thing of irrepressible beauty, guided by the hand of one of the game's most revered coaches.

Henry's recent flirtation with Leinster entailed merely a fortnight's briefing but Pope is adamant that Henry's influence can be similarly pronounced.

Despite their progress to the Pro12 final last season, Leinster's ruthless humiliation by free-flowing Connacht in the decider represented a vast gulf between the teams and an alarming dip in standards from the recent memory of European dominance under Joe Schmidt.

Parachuted into the head coach role at a moment's notice, Leo Cullen and his greenhorn staff clearly struggled to adapt and Pope believes that the merest dappling of stardust from Henry's gilded coaching manual can make the difference.

Simplicity will be the key.

"Henry was only in with the Pumas for short periods of time as well and they obviously got a lot out of it," explains the former St Mary's No 8.

"It's just stuff like sitting down and going through your game-plan. You don't need someone there for the whole season to implement those small changes in the style of rugby you want to play.

"He was crucial within Argentinian rugby. It used to be a forward-dominated game and suddenly he looked at more attacking options of play.

"He can't do too much with the players individually. But he can look at game-plans and structures.

"He won't be able to analyse lineouts and scrums. It's about how they play the game. Whether it is faster or wider and how the foundations can be laid down for this to be a permanent style of play. So that will be invaluable."

Leinster's coaching manual will not need to be ripped up; merely trimmed.

"People look for secrets in rugby but the game in essence hasn't changed in essence for over 100 years. It's exactly what New Zealand do. Pass well, kick well, tackle well. The basics first.

"And they're very clinical in the opposition 22 where they come away with points, and that's an area where Leinster clearly struggled last season.

"Often a new broom can sweep very clearly. He will analyse the options they have taken last season and asked them why did they do that and why didn't they do something else instead?

"He can inculcate a sense of positivity but I wouldn't expect him to be giving Fergus McFadden and Sean O'Brien individual advice. These guys have won European medals for club and country.


"But there was a lack of confidence in the attacking areas for Leinster last season, and that's what they must address.

"It's all about taking the right options and hopefully Leo Cullen can add it to the blueprint to what is still a very young coaching regime.

"Sometimes coaches who have just recently been players can over-think things. Rugby doesn't have to be as complicated as TV makes it. It's a game that is played on grass, not on whiteboards. Teams need to play to their strengths.

"A lot of teams think they can copy others and ignore their own strengths. Not every team has the players to play every game. New Zealand had to do that, they knew they couldn't compete with England or South Africa in terms of brute strength and physicality.

"Sometimes coaches need a wider perspective and that's where Henry's advice may have been invaluable. The skills can't have fallen off that much. The skill level is still there, they are all internationals and it should be a given that they can kick, catch and pass. It's about seeing the whole vision.

"New Zealand don't pick individuals, they pick a team and that's what Leinster need to decide upon. What players suit the team best. Leo is learning, he's very honest and he's willing to listen to ideas which is great."

Irish Independent

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