Friday 15 December 2017

Tony Ward: Big Two reap rewards as chiefs learn lessons from previous coaching calamities

Rassie Erasmus and (inset) Leo Cullen
Rassie Erasmus and (inset) Leo Cullen
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Leinster and Munster have had very different build-ups to the biggest games of their season today.

Ahead of their Champions Cup quarter-final clash with Toulouse, Munster have been rocked by the bombshell that Donnacha Ryan is leaving, and further destabilised by the persistent rumours linking coach Rassie Erasmus with a possible return to South Africa.

If Erasmus is intending to stay (and not activate his get-out clause, Pat Lam-style), then this would have been the perfect week to confirm his intentions.

It is understandable in the modern game if coaches - and players - keep a number of doors open, but surely if a contract is to be worth the paper it is written on, then at least a minimal commitment should apply.

By contrast, Leinster could hardly be in a better place, with the coaching team of Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster, John Fogarty and Girvan Dempsey all committing themselves to the province for another two seasons at least. It is a masterstroke in continuity.

I love the dignified manner in which Lancaster goes about his business (even when he was going through his England hell during the World Cup).

I would like to think Leinster have learned a lot since showing Matt O'Connor the door - the Australian was the victim of social media vitriol.

Along with Jimmy Gopperth, a superb out-half in his time in Dublin, the coach and his on-field general were made the scapegoats for Leinster's perceived shortcomings at the time.

Gopperth continues to show his class whether at centre or out-half for Wasps, while O'Connor has been reappointed head coach at Leicester - and I think even the most caustic of the 'get O'Connor out' so-called Leinster fans would concede that they know a thing or two about rugby at Welford Road.

I expect O'Connor to be successful again at Leicester second time around.

Head coach Cullen, along with Shane Jennings, completed his rugby education in the English midlands before returning to Dublin - initially as a player - to make Leinster a much more potent force.

But as Cullen will acknowledge, the arrival of first Kurt McQuilkin and then Lancaster have proved key pieces in the jigsaw, and the model for rugby in all four provinces.

We all want to see indigenous coaches given the opportunity to develop in the professional game here, but we learned a harsh lesson through the appointment of the rookie coaching team under Anthony Foley including Jerry Flannery, Brian Walsh, Mick O'Driscoll and Ian Costello at Munster in 2014.

The trick - and credit IRFU performance director David Nucifora for the way he has managed the coaches here since - is in mixing experience (home and abroad) with potential.

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In Joe Schmidt, Lam, Lancaster, Erasmus and Les Kiss we have five of the best from overseas working with local coaches throughout the island - and at every level.

I still find it difficult to comprehend the blinkered thinking (and bias) in effectively barring the two most successful native coaches in our history - Declan Kidney and Eddie O'Sullivan - from contributing in any capacity to the professional game after stepping down from the national team.

Cullen  is proving a success at Leinster, where he has been willing to listen and learn as he goes and mature enough to share responsibility.

I have no doubt life would have been so much easier for Foley when making the same step up had Erasmus or an experienced coach of that ilk been appointed alongside him.

Being thrown in at the deep end is no longer an option. That has been the harsh lesson for all those who really care about Irish rugby.

But back to today and Irish involvement just two hours apart - I can't understand why Leinster and Munster are playing on the same day; the true fans (those who attend games) are the ones most penalised.

Home advantage is massive at this stage and yet in all four games there is the possibility of that comfort being overturned.

Strangely, Leinster could be the more vulnerable of the Irish pair - although the Blues have greater strength in depth than Munster, Wasps are a strong unit and are the team best equipped of the eight remaining quarter-finalists to hit on the counter.

The smart money is with the home four, with exhilarating Wasps and ugly Toulon the most likely to win on the road.

Read more here:

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