Thursday 21 February 2019

Tony Ward: Addition of blue-blooded Contepomi to Cullen's coaching ranks looks like it will enhance Leinster's riches


Felipe Contepomi. Photo: Sportsfile
Felipe Contepomi. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Early in the new millennium an out half plying his trade at Bristol first caught my eye. Although the English Premiership was his place of business anyone watching in from afar couldn't but have been impressed. Here was a footballing out-half but one with a volcanic 'X' factor erupting in every performance.

Felipe Contepomi was classy, he was innovative, he was belligerent, the epitome of a warrior wearing 10. Even back then it was clear that in that in the former Club Newman out-half the Pumas had done the impossible and produced a successor to Hugo Porta - by common consensus the greatest Argentinian rugby player - and one very much in the Porta mould too.

I played opposite the former Puma maestro only once and, while he was classy and competitive to a fault, he was very much a gentleman rugby player of the time. Beyond that natural ability, the comparison with Contepomi ends. Rugby street fighting came much more naturally to Contepomi and how Leinster above Bristol, Toulon and Stade Francais (his other professional clubs) benefited from that vital ingredient.

Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom and possibly Brad Thorn are the other most revered overseas players to come Leinster's way to date. Nacewa occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of Leinster rugby folk everywhere and while I too buy into that, I would put Contepomi directly alongside Nacewa in that key category.

In terms of sowing seeds, Contepomi was to Leinster what John Langford and Jim Williams were to Munster. His influence and his impact as a player was that great. He oozed class but was possessed of that red mist and oft times - most particularly against Munster on away soil - it descended.

He was the Leinster player Munster fans professed to hate but scratch a little deeper and he was the 'bought-in' Leinster man they would love to have had in their ranks - whether competing with or alongside Ronan O'Gara at 12, 13 or 15.

Contepomi the player was pretty close to the real deal, the complete game-managing out-half but what he had over O'Gara and David Humphreys, the other top out-halves of that era on this island was the aforesaid 'X' factor. He was exciting with a willingness to run it from anywhere. Needless to say, I was a fully-paid-up fan.

Indeed, I read Fergus McFadden recently describe him as his schoolboy hero when making his own way through the ranks at Clongowes. "We're all energised by his coming," added the now more mature member of European rugby's top squad.

In technical terms, and given the significant presence of Stuart Lancaster alongside Leo Cullen, I cannot immediately identify what specifically Contepomi will bring to the cause. That will emerge in time.

But for now as a high-profile blue-blooded replacement for Girvan Dempsey and added to the skills coaching ticket alongside Hugh Hogan, it represents a pretty solid starting point.

Might I reference at this stage how the Leinster Head Coach goes about his business. Leo is Leinster to the core - even more so given he is Wicklow-born and a very real product of the Leinster schools and underage system.

The manner in which Cullen has made the transition from player to coach, and head coach at that, has been remarkable. He has put in place a management team around him based on trust. It is the key to efficient business in whatever walk of life. That said, the arrival of Lancaster in support of Cullen, Dempsey and John Fogarty all making their way was critical.

The contribution of Lancaster to Leinster and, by extension, Irish rugby should not be understated in the least. He has been immense and dare I say typically dignified too.

Listening to Lancaster speak shifts you immediately onto the Joe Schmidt wavelength. He is meticulous to the nth degree. And it is to that end I see the potential benefit of Contepomi's arrival. There is still a touch of that give-it-a-lash fire burning in Contepomi the coach. We're not suggesting any loose cannon stuff but certainly given the quality of players now available, specifically in the wider channels, the likes of Garry Ringrose, James Lowe and Jordan Larmour in particular, along with Ross Byrne, Ciarán Frawley and Harry Byrne, and even Johnny Sexton too, can benefit from the 'new' voice at Belfield.

Mention of Sexton takes me back to the first time he came to my attention on the St Mary's JCT. My immediate impression - which was unusual for a Mary's school 10 - was of a tendency to over-kick. Having spoken to him about it since, he has been generous in his acknowledgement over the years of his apprenticeship and the Contepomi influence when either playing alongside him or else competing with or learning from him on a daily basis at training.

Whether Contepomi the playing great can become Contepomi the coaching great only time will tell. It is not a simple transition - anything but. That said, what a fantastic opportunity for him and specifically for the younger players learning their trade at Leinster right now. There is a touch of the Liverpool FC Bootroom days of old and I'll buy that. Whatever the reason for his sudden departure from Buenos Aires, he and Leinster have landed on their feet particularly with two of the all-time greats in Nacewa and Dempsey departing at much the same time.

I'm not sure Dempsey got the credit he deserved from a wider audience in his time at Leinster but he is made of the right stuff with the temperament and patient personality to handle that player-to-coach transition. I will be more than surprised if he doesn't return to Leinster in a more far-reaching capacity somewhere down the road.

At least the September posturing will be over this weekend with the most widely shared quote coming from Munster's main man Johann van Graan when he said: "Once we get to next week we're going to stick to our best team". That process has already started and Amen to it. If I'm honest I hate this lead-in period every year. To borrow from the President of the United States, it's fake rugby and nothing short of it.

The real rugby starts now building into the Champions Cup in a fortnight's time. The Guinness Pro14 Conference stuff still confuses but it too will gather momentum on the back of this interprovincial and local derby fortnight.

Meanwhile in Limerick, preparations are at an advanced stage for St Munchin's College as the Corbally school looks to bring together its past pupils to celebrate the 50th anniversary of winning the Munster Schools Senior Rugby Cup for the very first time in the college's distinguished history.

That was in 1968 when a Larry Moloney dropped goal took them to victory over Rockwell. Larry, of course, went on to have a hugely distinguished career for Garryowen, Munster and culminating in the highest honour for Ireland.

I played alongside 'the Prince' throughout the seventies for club and province and I can honestly say I never witnessed him even attempt a drop goal in that time! Irrelevant I know as that youthful kick in the mud of Thomond is and will always be legendary.

Driven by great Shannon stalwart and former Limerick mayor Thady Coughlan, a '68 Senior Cup Reunion Organising Committee including players Michael Hehir, Tony Sadlier, skipper John Moloney, Mike Carroll, Brian Cox and Larry Moloney have been working feverishly to put the upcoming Golden Jubilee celebration together.

It will take place on Friday, October 19, kicking off at 7 30pm in the Kilmurry Lodge Hotel, Castletroy and the current Junior Schools Cup holders are anxious to ensure that as many past pupils, staff and friends from the 1967-'70 come along.

Further details may be had through contacting the hotel direct on 061-331133.

Irish Independent

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