Captain Lancaster

Huzzah! Leinster have a new “senior coach”! Who’ll report to the “head coach” – Leo Cullen. And it’s none other than … drum roll … Stuart Lancaster, last seen sloping off the rugger scene after England’s disastrous RWC15. Which is interesting. In the Steve Davis sense.

Thing is, Nucifora has taken a few public pops at everyone Leo Cullen, making it pretty clear he thinks Leinster should have appointed a bigger, more experienced name – so the fact he is getting some external help isn’t really that much of a surprise. Indeed, Graham Henry popped by to look sullen in a long training jacket for two weeks this summer – and was impressed by the ruck-hitting ability of Leinster’s wingers Joey Carbery, for one. So a more experienced name coming in was to be expected.

But, taking a broader view of Leinster in the post-Schmidt era, the best word to describe their football would be: muddled. They don’t seem to know how they want to play, and have seemingly lost the ability to catch and pass the football. Matt O’Connor put big emphasis on empowering the players after years of Cheika and Schmidt micro-strategising, but that didn’t work out. Cullen came in last season, at least one season before planned, and had a steep learning curve. The squad is deep and stacked, but it feels like the team don’t really know what they are doing, and haven’t (yet) bought into Cullen’s vision. They just don’t seem to be able to get it done (except against Ulster).

If you were to make an argument for what Leinster actually needed, you would say a strong technical coach, someone to work on their skills and give them the tools to execute on-field. What you would say they don’t need is a delegator to come in and talk in broad brushes about culture or whatever. England under Lancaster seemed to change tactics annually and centre partnership by series and were an utter dogs dinner by the time the big gig came around. It’s hard to actually define what Lancaster brings to the table. And for a group that feels like it is begging for clarity and a mission, that’s a bit worrying.

Lancaster’s main contribution to English rugby was a much heralded change to the culture within the squad, creating a jolly-hockeysticks-upstanding-chaps atmosphere where previously they were a dwarf-throwing shambles.  Or so it seemed at the time, but that’s been largely discredited since Eddie Jones came in and named Dylan Hartley as captain and reverted to a no-one likes us, we don’t care mentality.

Since the England shindig fell apart Lancaster has had stints with Atlanta Falcons, British Cycling’s world-class performance programme, the English FA and Counties Manukau.  Make of that what you will.  Soaking up experience at the sharp end of sports science or running out to get coffees for Brailsford et al?  Who really knows?

That said, when Gregor Townsend was attack coach for Scotland, they hadn’t scored a try in about a year when he left the setup. He got the top job at Glasgae, set about creating an exciting and dynamic attacking unit and is now going back as big kahuna next summer. So maybe Lancaster will show us insights we didn’t know he possessed in the deadening corporate chatshow that was his England team. Here’s hoping.

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Off With You!

A new season is here.  Hello everyone!  Let’s all start with an essay entitled ‘What we did on our Holidays’.

While a look at the upcoming season (Which non-scoring wings will Leinster start this year?  Who are the latest pairing to be tried in the centres for Munster? Is Robbie Diack still on the bench? Can Connacht do it again?) is in order, the first dramatic talking point looks to be the non-renewal of Ruan Pienaar’s contract.  It’s a staggering bit of decision-making from the IRFU and to these eyes, totally wrongheaded.

It’s borne of the directives on recruitment of foreign players, rolled out to great fanfare (and bemusement) back in 2013, and which have been selectively enforced ever since. The non-scoring Zane Kirchner has (mystifyingly) been allowed to keep Irish non-scoring wings kicking their heels while doing very little to justify paying him, and we lost count of the number of extensions BJ Botha managed to winkle out. Yet the IRFU say they cannot give Pienaar another contract because Ulster now have to fill the 9 shirt with an Irishman.

It looks a wrong decision on so  many levels.  For a start, simply vacating the number 9 shirt is not going to elevate the indigenous scrum halves at Ulster to a higher level.  The player who is next in line at the province is Paul Marshall, who is clearly not in the picture for test recognition, ranking number 5 in the depth chart on his best days, and mostly lower.  He’s a decent Pro12 player, but that’s just not good enough for Ireland, and never will be, no matter how much gametime he gets. After that, its Dave Shanahan and Angus Lloyd – now it’s possible that one of this pair will improve to such an extent that will be better than (a then 35 year old) Pienaar in three years, but it’s far less likely if Pienaar is half heartedly flinging passes to a deep-lying Lionel Beauxis to welt into orbit than working with them every day.

Furthermore, it’s easy to argue that Pienaar’s presence has benefitted Irish rugby, and would continue to do so, through his stewarding of Paddy Jackson.  On this year’s summer tour, much was made of Jackson’s emergence as a player of test quality, finally giving us a reliable replacement for Jonny Sexton.  But how much does Jackson’s development owe to playing alongside so assured and consummate a performer as Ruan Pienaar? Put it this way, would Jackson be at his current performance level if Pienaar left for Toulon two years ago when offered a blank cheque? Jackson has now reached maturity, and no longer requires a scrum half to take pressure off him, as might have been the case in the past, and any 10 will tell you that the better the passes they receive from the 9, the better they are likely to play.

A look at the bigger picture also reveals the rules that have dictated Pienaar must leave to be somewhat anachronistic – and have only been half applied in the past anyway.  They were devised when Ireland had three strong provinces and one extra; Connacht were exempt.  The idea was that across the three provinces we would have two Irish players playing regularly in each position.  But with Connacht no longer an add-on and now winning trophies and contributing players to the national team, the rules don’t really make sense any more, at least in their old form.  I make it that there are three scrum halves vying for the vacant spot as Conor Murray’s deputy for Ireland; Luke McGrath, John Cooney and Kieran Marmion.  Two of those are playing with Connacht, the other with Leinster.  It’s hard to see what Ruan Pienaar’s presence at Ulster can possibly be doing to hamper their development.

But worst of all, it just feels like shabby treatment of a great player and person.  There does not appear to be any consideration for the fact that, after seven years, Pienaar and his family have laid down roots here, and wanted to stay (was willing to for less than he could have earned on the open market) and ultimately move into coaching.  It feels like he’s been treated as a commodity, a tick in the box marked ‘non-indigenous player’ and nothing more.  When those Top 5 Foreign Imports lists are drawn up in future years you can guarantee that Pienaar’s name will be up there with the Doug Howletts and Felipe Contepomis.  He has been world class for Ulster, a lynchpin.  He deserves better treatment than this, and it’s a decision that is unlikely to benefit Irish rugby either.

Gerry thinks it’s down to the presence of Jamison Gibson-Park in D4, and it’s probably a factor. But, as hass been said, if the IRFU are prioritising an opportunistic free agent as a potential Irish cap in 3 years over a man and a player like Ruan Pienaar, it’s a great shame, and doesn’t say much for them.