Sport Rugby

Friday 20 April 2018

Hugh Farrelly: Kiwi expertise muscling out our coaches

Hugh Farrelly

IT started in 1989. That was a magnificent New Zealand squad and an unbeaten tour which helped dispel the traditional image of the dour, mysterious All Blacks, as the Kiwis opened up on and off the field with a series of public training sessions lowering barriers, and set a coaching template that echoes to this day.

That was the first time Irish rugby people encountered the now standard warm-up routines of players grouping in four corners and performing a series of criss-crossing drills -- all done at high speed with immediate punishments for any dropped balls, of which there were few.

A year later, the All-Ireland League got going and Irish clubs, dazzled by the new dawn, began courting travel-itching rugby men from New Zealand.

Brent Anderson, Brent Pope and Dean Oswald were early successes, followed by the likes of Sean McCahill (brother of 1989 All Black Bernie), Andy Ward, Rhys Ellison, Mike Mullins and Jason Holland.

Coaches also began to drift over, lured by tales of intense but manageable rugby and enthusiastic, generous benefactors. Andy Leslie and Murray Kidd enjoyed AIL success with Garryowen, with Kidd progressing to the position of Irish national coach. And then, of course, there was Warren Gatland, the Grand Slam-winning and soon-to-be Lions coach who got into his stride with Galwegians, Connacht and Ireland.

By the turn of the century, the balance of power had swung Australia's way, as it was the Wallabies who were setting world trends after their scientifically successful 1999 World Cup triumph.

Matt Williams, Alan Gaffney, Jim Williams, Michael Cheika and Tony McGahan all forged successful careers with the provinces before moving on to bigger and better gigs.

But now, coinciding with the All Blacks ending their long wait for a second World Cup title last year, the provinces are dancing to a Kiwi beat once again.

Joe Schmidt, Jono Gibbes and Greg Feek have been successfully installed with Leinster for the past couple of years, with Mark Anscombe and Rob Penney about to be embraced by Ulster and Munster respectively.

Which raises the question: why is Ireland not bringing through its own coaches into the system? They are out there.

Eddie O'Sullivan is still searching for suitable employment to meet his previous achievements, while Michael Bradley, Conor O'Shea and Mark McCall have done well overseas.

But, now that Ulster are relegating Brian McLaughlin to a background position and Anthony Foley's been overlooked for Penney, Connacht's Eric Elwood is the only frontline Irish provincial coach.

The succession problem is complicated by a financial climate which mitigates against talented amateur AIL coaches making the jump to the professional game when the likes of Peter Smyth, Brian Walsh and David O'Mahony all look capable of making the step up.

So, there is an element of 'needs must' and it is not as though the overseas coaches have been failures. Cheika and Schmidt have brought Leinster to the summit of Europe, while Gaffney, McGahan and the two Williams made worthwhile contributions in their time.

Indigenous

It could also be argued that the willingness to take a punt on relative unknowns or unproven overseas coaches at the top level has not been as readily replicated with indigenous alternatives.

However, despite the three-from-four situation next season, there are positive indications that the dependence on overseas experience could be reduced over the next few years -- as it should.

Foley has all the qualities to be an excellent head coach, while there are a clutch of players of similar vintage who could follow his lead. Using the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara in a coaching capacity would seem an inevitable step when their playing careers cease.

Throw in the likes of Young Munster coach and Munster 'A' assistant Mike Prendergast, Ulster's back-room pair of Neil Doak and Jonny Bell, as well as the Wild Geese contingent working in England and France, and the future of Irish coaching actually looks very promising.

Irish rugby has leaned heavily and productively on New Zealand experience for the bones of 20 years and will continue to do so in the short-to-mid-term (with Penney looking a smart acquisition).

But this relationship should be seen as a means to an end for both parties and, hopefully, it will not be long before the majority of senior Irish coaching positions are in Irish hands.

Irish Independent

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