And then there were two...
With Ulster seemingly prepared to take a more than acutely calculated punt on Neil Doak and Allen Clarke heading an indigenous coaching group, mirroring Munster’s all-local policy, only Connacht and Leinster have overseas coaches in charge.
One would presume that, in an ideal world, whenever performance director David Nucifora – ironically himself an overseas appointment – clears his desk at IRFU HQ, the aim would be to ensure that all provinces would have indigenously developed coaches at the helm.
Indeed, casting an eye beyond the next World Cup, the Australian’s remit would, presumably, also include laying the foundation whereby a home-grown coach would also be in charge of the national side.
The nationality of coaches in Ireland remains a thorny issue; the sport seems more perturbed at where its leading players earn their crust – viz the national outcry concerning Jonny Sexton – rather than where their coaches pitch up.
There are more Irish coaches operating at the top level of the sport outside Ireland than within, with Mark McCall, Conor O’Shea and Bernard Jackman leading the charge in the top flights of English and French rugby.
Last season, Irish rugby began the season with overseas voices filling all four provincial positions, as well as supplying the head coach of the international side.
It was not a satisfactory situation if it is a responsibility, as the IRFU have repeatedly declared has been the case for more than a decade, to ensure that the Irish coaching arena is promulgated in the professional game with as much success and protection as that of its players.
And yet for every Irish supporter – admittedly more of a provincial hue than national, and often the twain do not meet – who has voiced concern about the disproportionate influence of overseas coaches, there is another who will shrug his shoulders and mutter “So what?”
This is particularly the case within Leinster; they have employed just one Irish-born coach in their professional lifetime and yet they have established themselves as one of the giants of the European game.
Leinster’s attitude has always been – justifiably so, as any professional business would strenuously argue – that they want the best man available for the job.
And, after the success of Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt, continued in his first season by Matt O’Connor, it is difficult to argue that such a meritocratic approach should ever have been distilled by a protectionist approach.
However, given the inordinate success of the IRFU’s Player Welfare Programme in maintaining a tight stranglehold on its players, it seems jarring that, aside from well-intentioned blather in Strategic Plans and so forth, there hasn’t been a concomitant protectionist policy in terms of its coaches.
The IRFU will, of course, argue strongly against this thesis, perhaps pointing to Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam success as an example, but it would be churlish to overlook the fact that at the time of Declan Kidney’s appointment, the IRFU were more intent on seeking overseas help than rather than domestic.
In public, at least, their efforts to restrict the influence of overseas players has been more blatant than their interest in stemming the regular influx of overseas coaches which has scarcely moderated throughout the professional era.
Such are the ironies which abound within Irish rugby; we also recall when the IRFU attempted to limit further the restriction on overseas players, the loudest voices of opposition derived from overseas coaches in charge of Irish provinces.
This remains the crux of what are often Irish solutions to Irish problems; Irish provinces are only semi-autonomous after all, charged at once with both providing Irish players to the national team as well as being as successful as possible on the Celtic and European stage.
It’s a whole other bar-stool debate but it can be reasonably argued that the balance has been, largely, a successful one; albeit one may have to overlook Ireland’s less than competent World Cup experiences.
The only real losers, it would seem with few exceptions, are home-grown coaches; until Eddie O’Sullivan landed in Biarritz last May, two of Ireland’s most successful coaches were, notwithstanding small-time politicking, unemployable in their own country.
What hope, one wondered, would there be for their successors?
Admittedly, just as 120 professional playing positions offer limited options to those seeking to advance their careers, the fact that only five professional head coach positions are available at any one time has restricted opportunity.
A sea change may be occurring, though. One of Nucifora’s briefs will be to inculcate a more coherent coaching structure within the Irish game, so that coaching pathways are more obviously discernible.
“The IRFU are working on coach development throughout Ireland,” says former Ulster and Ireland centre Maurice Field.
“They are keen to bring through indigenous coaches so we’ve seen Anthony taking over at Munster. So I think there is now an attempt to replicate that template here in Ulster.”
Leinster – with Leo Cullen and Richie Murphy – and Connacht (Dan McFarland) have already begun that process.
It’s not a finite process; if domestic coaches can’t cut it, there is little sustainable logic for re-employing them. It’s just about giving them a better chance than before.
Irish rugby has been hugely successful in looking after its best home-grown players.
Now they’re finally starting to do the same for their coaches.