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.

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 2

It sort of crept up on us. One minute it was the middle of the summer and the next Ireland were playing an international rugby match.  Declan Kidney named his team at luncheon yesterday, and true to form, trying to infer a whole lot from it is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork.   It’s hard to reason that the selection advances or hinders anyone’s possibilites of touring.
First of all, there is good news that Rob Kearney, Jerry Flannery and Tomas O’Leary are back in action and fit for selection.  Expect to see Kearney and O’Leary feature heavily over the next four weeks – both are seen by management as key First XV players, and both need the gametime badly.  Given Flannery’s history of aborted comebacks, management might be more careful with regards to him, but we expect he will be dying to get out and play.

Now for the spots still up for grabs:

  • This was possibly Conor Murray’s best chance of seeing action, and his touring chances could be receding.  There have been indications he is not considered as close to the squad as we had hoped, and this is another.
  • In the backline it’s a big opportunity for McFadden to show what he can do.  He’s pretty adept at 13 as well as 12 – we all know how well he played last year, he just needs to take up where he left off.
  • Don’t worry too much about Niall Ronan’s surprise appearance.  The Lunsterman had a pretty ineffectual season last year, and won’t be anywhere near the final squad.  He’s just keeping the shirt warm – Jennings is available for selection next week and Wally and SOB will be in the mix too, so Ronan will be thanked for his time and bundled back home.
  • Confession time – we know next to nothing about Mike McCarthy, though we understand he had a good seaon last year for Connacht.  He’s probably behind Locky and Donncha Ryan in the shake-up for the 4/6 spot (although Brendan Fanning suspects otherwise), but we look forward to seeing him
  • Ligind watch: the entire Munster 2008 front row is on the bench – we could see a very poignant triple substitution around the 60 minute mark
Finally, it’s great to see Leo Cullen captain the side, the 100th man to lead out his country.  The Wicklow lock has been harshly treated in the past, and while he may not be the most eye-catching player, he is a fine captain, firm but polite in dealing with referees, and he knows when to talk and when to walk away.

And, regarding the game itself, it could be a scrappy affair (read: GRIM). Scotland look to have a slightly stronger pack out and should just about shade it.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Second Row

This week and next, we’ll be looking at the likely runners and riders for Ireland’s World Cup 30, taking it unit-by-unit. On Monday we studied the front row, now we look at the second row.

How many will go? In 2003, Ireland took four and in 2007 three. We think three plus one back row/second row option is likely this time around.

Who is certain to travel? Ireland’s first choice second row partnership has been set in stone since 2004. Paul O’Connell is a key man and the pack leader – Ireland will need him at his best to progress beyond the quarter-finals. Beside him will be Donncha O’Callaghan. WoC is sick of seeing Donners perform impressively in good team performances and anonymously in bad ones – his leadership skills are non-existent for a man of his experience (Devin Toner calling the lineouts on his debut?) and as for his penalty count… With a string of nondescript performances preceding a few swashbuckling ones, he reminds us of the role Paul Collingwood played for the England cricket team in his latter days. We would love to have seen some variety in the 4 shirt recently, but twas not to be. These 2 are already past security at Dublin Airport.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Firstly, lets discuss the owner of the number 18 shirt. The contenders here are Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll. In November, Micko was probably a nose in front, and deservedly so – he added real get-around-the-park dynamism to his game in the first half of last season. But after Christmas, when Paulie came back, Micko fell out of favour and lost momentum. At the same time, Leo Cullen improved on a rather scrappy and lumbering first half of season, and personified solidity and, rather surprisingly, showed no little skill in a storming last month of the season.

Deccie has also had a look at Devin Toner and Biiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey (Go Irish!), but neither has any chance of making the squad, due to being tall-but-not-very-good and an immobile Premiership lump respectively. Cullen is 90% certain to take his place on the bench and play 8 seconds against Italy.

The second row cum back row slot is a straight fight between Donnacha Ryan and Kevin McLaughlin. In Ryan’s favour is the fact he has played second row before for Ireland and that he is more of a 4 than a 6 – McLaughlin is definitely more of a 6. For Locky, its that he has played in bigger and higher intensity games this season than anything Ireland are likely to face in this World Cup, unless they come across NZ. Locky is being pencilled in by some as the future for Leinster and Ireland at lock, more due to a lack of options than anything else, but we think Deccie will go with Ryan’s experience and greater suitability for the position.

However, WoC has a better idea. What about bringing an in-form lock forward who offers something different to all the names previously mentioned. Someone who can bring Richie Gray / Sam Whitelock-esque ball-playing skills to the party. Dan Tuohy has been far more effective than Ryan this season, and has excelled playing alongside Johann Muller, which is very similar to playing with Paulie or Leo. Second row could soon be a bit of a problem position for Ireland, and we see little to lose by bringing a man who has done it in the HEC this season, and who could be an Ireland regular very soon.

Any bolters? McLaughlin is probably the most obvious one – in January the idea of him even being in contention at second row was rather fantastical. Tuohy has picked up injuries at unfortunate times.

Should go: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Dan Tuohy
Will go: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Donnacha Ryan