Jobs for the Goys

Leinster have named Leo Cullen as their new head coach today, in a move that will surprise exactly nobody, having been leaked and rumoured since Matt O’Connor bit the dust at the end of last season. What is surprising is the following nugget reported by Murray Kinsella this morning:

It’s understood that Leinster had moved to make Cullen permanent head coach, before IRFU performance director David Nucifora expressed his concerns.

What? Leinster are appointing an insider over the objections of the Union’s Performance Director? Now, we don’t know what those objections might be (coaching qualifications and experience, or something more benign) but that’s strange. Remember that part of Nucifora’s role is to “ensure that both playing and coaching talent is developed to provide a prosperous long-term future for the provincial and national teams”. It also raises another question – this has been rumoured for months, so Nucifora has had plenty of time to object.

As it stands, Cullen has a worryingly low amount of experience to take over as head coach of one of Europe’s top teams (at least in ambition) – he retired after winning the 2013-14 Pro12 and has one (disappointing) season as forwards coach behind him. By contrast, when Axel got the Munster job, he had retired six years previously (putting significant distance between himself and the then playing corps) and had the following experience:

  • 2 years as Munster A coach
  • 3 years as Munster forwards coach
  • 2 games as Irish Wolfhounds coach
  • 1 Six Nations as Ireland forwards coach

Even then, plenty of fans, Munster and otherwise, expressed the view that Axel was a bit raw for the job – and his all-Munster (© every piece Gerry wrote last season) coaching ticket certainly didn’t add any experience. At least Cullen hasn’t that problem, with Kurt McQuilkin and Richie Murphy in his backroom staff, alongside Girv the Swerve and John Fogs.

Leinster have had a decade of coaching stability due to an in-depth and considered appointment process – Cheika and Schmidt were huge successes and while O’Connor was something of a disaster, the process by which he was selected and appointed wasn’t to blame – it just didn’t work out.

Now, Cullen is a Leinster legend and a great guy, but if the likes of Nucifora are advocating appointing someone else, presumably a Penney-esque figure for him to serve under for a few years, it is not exactly the sort of all-encompassing endorsement that the Leinster branch would be looking for.  Presumably, Nucifora has been appeased, at least in so far as he can be.  Indications from earlier this summer are that Leinster did indeed cast the net wider in order to attract experienced coaches, but found the response to be less than overwhelming.  It’s a case of going with what appears to be the best available solution.

It calls into question just how attractive the provincial jobs are seen by for’d’ners.  To our own ferverishly passionate eyes, all we can see are the world class players, rousing rivalries with neighbouring provionces, stadia full of well-heeled fans and traditions of sporting excellence, but against that must be considered the high expectations, limited access to the best players and perhaps an increasing sense that the primary function is to serve the national team.  To an extent there appears to have been a sea change; Munster and Leinster now both boast indiginous head coaches, while Neil Doak oversaw Ulster’s bid for glory this season.  But is it that the Antipodean coaches of whom we appear to have been so fond are now out of vogue, or simply aren’t that interested any more?

When Jonny Wilkinson retired from playing, at the same time Cullen did, he moved into a coaching role with Toulon (he is a “specialist skills mentor” – whatever that is). It was acknowledged that, like Cullen, he has always been a leader and has performed a pseudo-coaching role most of his career. But no-one in their right minds considered appointing him as head coach after one season – because that would be fraught with risk in a sport where sustained success is not guaranteed. Leinster have been left with  little choice but to do just that.

David? Are You There?

Hot on the heels of the news Paddy Butler will be joining Kiwis Smuddy and Colin Slade at (nouveau riche) Pau next season came the news that Michael Allen would not only be leaving Ulster for Embra, but be leaving the Irish system altogether, with a view to qualifying for Scotland through residency.

Butler, a ball carrying number 8 who can deputize on the flanks, was finding his path at Munster blocked by CJ Stander (Irish in 6 months) and Robo-Copey – both of whom are going nowhere and, being only on the fringes of the Ireland setup, won’t be away for weeks at a time to give Butler gametime. Up north, Allen, a wing who has spent significant time at centre, was behind a long queue of internationals – Trimble, Bowe and Gilroy on the wing and Marshall, McCloskey, Cave, Olding and Payne in the centre. The logic of leaving their current provinces is hard to argue with in both cases.

However, it seems worth questioning why they are leaving the Irish setup altogether – Ulster might have plucked Paul Browne from the Bucuresti Welsh bench just last week, but they are extremely light in the back row. Until Hendo and Henry returned, they were regularly picking from Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Naughty Nuck and Roger Wilson, and are in dire need of a decent number 8. Butler was marked as one to watch from underage but hasn’t quite made the breakthrough at his home province – wouldn’t have been worth at least exploring a move to Ulster?

Ditto Allen – Matt Healy aside, are any of the Connacht wings clearly better than the Ulsterman? Gametime would have been virtually assured – not at ERC level, but then that’s not guaranteed at Embra either.

Fans tend to overstate the extent to which player movement can be achieved.  There is an occasional tendency to view players like Panini stickers, which can be swapped around at will: ‘I’ll swap you two centres for a backrow, a lock and a sherbet dib-dab.’  But the idea of removing log-jams in various positrions with a bit of delicate prompting has been long-mooted as something David Nucifora is striving to achieve, but has been scarcely visible to date.

Given the general dearth of inter-provincial movement, one wonders what the plans are for this aspect of Nucifora’s role – he can’t force players into another province, but he can certainly tempt them with promises of gametime, and some cash. The alternatives for Butler and Allen are certainly exciting, but does it really benefit Irish rugby when there are NIQ restrictions on the one hand, and clear positional needs in other provinces on the other? It feels like a sub-optimal use of a scarce resource.

The Mole mentioned earlier this month how Munster brought in Pat Howard as a medical joker earlier this season – Howard did more or less what was expected of him, but left virtually zero legacy in Irish rugby. We don’t even know if the option of bringing in a centre from Ulster or Leinster on a short term loan was on the table, but that, at least, would have produced some long-term benefit to Irish rugby, even if small. Do we need to think a bit more expansively?