Rising coaches ready to buck overseas trend
OVER the past fortnight, the cream of Irish-playing talent came face to face in the provincial derbies in front of bumper crowds.
On the field, the inter-provincials were largely Irish affairs, with tempers fraying and the smattering of imports getting sucked into the spats and the passion of it all.
Up in the stands, the four Antipodeans in charge of the Irish provinces carefully planned and strategised, while they must have scratched their heads at times at the madness that pervaded.
Now, they focus their minds on the Irish love affair with the Heineken Cup -- the tournament by which the coaches are judged.
The soldiers they send into battle may be largely homegrown -- just 12 of the 60 starters last weekend were not Irish-produced, and a good number of those are now eligible for Ireland -- but a quick look at the coaching landscape indicates that all is not well.
The five top jobs are held by outsiders from below the equator, but there is also evidence that a shift is slowly happening and that the first generation of professionals are getting their act together when it comes to coaching.
Across Europe, there are pockets of Irishmen making their way in the coaching world, while in Ireland the steady increase of domestic talent working under the Antipodeans in charge is good to see.
This weekend, Mark McCall will take his Saracens team to Toulouse with a real chance of winning and topping their pool, while Conor O'Shea's mission improbable of becoming the first coach to guide a team into the quarter-finals despite losing their first two pool games will continue as Harlequins host Clermont Auvergne.
By replacing Clermont-bound Jono Gibbes with Leo Cullen, Leinster have placed major faith in their long-serving captain, who will transition from one job to the other at the end of this season. He has already been touted as a future Leinster coach, although he would be the first to plea caution.
Anthony Foley is playing a similar role at Munster, having been overlooked for the top job in 2012. The former No 8 and captain has also been handed the reins for the Wolfhounds' game with England Saxons at the end of this month, following on from his involvement with the national set-up throughout last season.
Ulster's Neil Doak will assist Foley in that job after also travelling to North America last summer and is another who is being handed experience by the IRFU as they look to address the shortage of top-level coaches.
The IRFU know that it is up to the provinces to appoint the right man for each job and, having cast the net wide, both Connacht and Leinster went abroad for their new coaches last summer. Leinster's spectacular success in hiring Joe Schmidt appeared to start a trend for New Zealanders -- and the Blues have not had an Irish coach since Declan Kidney's lone season in charge in 2004/05.
Munster's last Irish coach was also Kidney, who left for the national job in 2008, while Ulster had Brian McLaughlin until 2012 and Eric Elwood left Connacht of his own volition last year. The Union admit they would like more Irish coaches at the provinces, but vice-president Martin O'Sullivan told the Irish Independent last summer: "The first priority is to have the best coaches we can for our players. It is a dream that they'd all be Irish, but we're a bit away from that."
Mike Prendergast is one of the Irish coaches making his way abroad. The former Munster, Bourgoin and Gloucester scrum-half did his time in the All-Ireland League with Young Munster, but found the best way to get into professionalism was to head abroad.
He joined Bernard Jackman at Grenoble last summer and, after the former Ireland hooker was confirmed as next year's head coach, the skills coach was offered the role of backs coach for next season.
The duo are blazing a trail in France, where Ronan O'Gara is also learning his trade with Racing Metro and Jeremy Davidson is impressing at Aurillac in the second tier -- he just missed out on the job Gibbes landed.
The English Premiership also has a heavy Irish influence, with O'Shea and McCall in charge of clubs at the right end of the table, while Simon Easterby has the Scarlets in mid-table of the Pro12.
"We're kind of the first batch of ex-players who have gone into coaching and I'm sure there'll be more to follow," Prendergast said.
"Whether it be young players getting into Academies or coaches, there are only so many opportunities. From a personal point of view -- and I know from speaking to ROG (O'Gara) and Birch (Jackman) -- to see it from the other side, get another experience is important.
"For me it is a massive challenge. Going to another team in a different country, a different culture... there's nine different nationalities in our squad and we're gaining huge experience from all different parts of the world. Hopefully, going forward, it will stand to us massively.
"I look at this as a marathon. I'm gaining good experience and I'm relatively young as a coach at 36 -- ROG is the same age.
"It is about gaining all of these experiences and, if we have to travel to different countries for a few years, so be it.
"To be at home is great, you've your friends and family, but to get this experience... I did it as a player and I always reflect that it massively stood to me.
"I think other players going into coaching will look to do it. It's a big challenge, but hopefully it will stand to me."
Foley has spoken about following O'Gara's lead and heading away and it may be the wisest choice.
The provinces have consistently looked for coaches who have proven themselves abroad when making their key appointments, so why not take a chance and test yourself at the highest level before returning home?
With just five professional head coaching jobs in this country, and Ireland striving for excellence, there is always going to be a bottle-neck at the top.
With all of those jobs filled by outsiders, the situation for upcoming Irish coaches appears bleak on the face of it, but with a combination of key appointments in the back-room staffs at the provinces and those blazing a trail abroad, there is room for optimism.
Perhaps it won't be too long before the Christmas derby coaching boxes are filled by those who battled each other on the pitches not too long ago.