Heaven knows I’m not quite but at the same time sort of miserable now kind of   Leave a comment

Last weekend Leinster took to the field against Ulster to kickoff their pre-season and on Friday night Moseley are the visitors as the Blues take to the field for their first home game after a long and troubling off season.

Matt is Murder

Last year ended with neither a bang nor a whimper – enough air couldn’t be bothered to be displaced for either – instead it ended in a fog of uncertainty, recrimination, social media stupidity and a whole lot of discordant noise generated by virtually everyone. It has been a long time since Leinster didn’t have a pot to play for at the end of the year and in the interim we all forgot how to pack up our stuff and go home quietly.

Even the manner of O’Connor’s departure reflected the kind of uncertainty that surrounded the end of his period in charge. The official story was the old ‘by mutual agreement’ line, but I’ve heard that one before. I’ve also heard that he wanted his contracted extended and Leinster told him to do one, that he demanded that his contract be extended in order to force Leinster to tell him to do one, and that Leinster just told him to do one! I guess you can pick whichever one you prefer.

However it happened it left Leinster looking for a head coach this summer and the rumour mill went into overdrive. The usual names were mentioned – Robbie Deans, Ewan McKenzie, Conor O’Shea – the usual names who are never in with a shout of being appointed. The situation wasn’t helped by the only inarguably successful member of the coaching team leaving with his boss, as scrum coach Mario Caputo decided to return home also.

Leinster reacted pretty quickly by appointing Leo Cullen as interim Head Coach, bumping Academy Manager Girvan Dempsey up to backs coach, moving John Fogarty from Elite Player Development Officer to Caputo’s old job as scrum coach and re-appointing Kurt McQuilkan as defense coach, abeit initially only on an interim basis. Richie Murphy would remain as Skills and Kicking coach, but with a title bump to Assistant Coach. In short it was All Legends – All The Time (for the time being). Not so much rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic as flinging them at the iceberg in the hope of deflecting it.

It soon turned out however that Leinster wasn’t quite as attractive an appointment as many assumed it to be. For starters, compared to the sides Leinster are expected to compete with at the business end of a European season, the budget is tiny. Last year the IRFU spent €32 million on the professional game in Ireland – all of it – 4 provinces, national teams, the whole shebang. Toulon’s budget alone is €25 million whilst Stade Toulousain’s budget is a whopping €35 million. On top of this, any new coach would be without most of his first team squad until the first European match of the season if the World Cup goes to plan (and they could even miss that if it really really goes to plan – though at that stage no-one apart from him would care!).   He would have to remember too, that he’s only in charge on someone else’s say so – one particular deal that O’Connor did would have significantly strengthened Leinster but was vetoed by the Schmifora and of course the least said about the public smackdown that was put on O’Connor by the Schmifora the better. One would be foolish to think that potential candidates didn’t take that into account.   Lastly, for his first season the new coach wouldn’t be able to make any signings as Leinster had their business all wrapped up.

When the anticipated queue of antipodean superstar coaches down the Clonskeagh Road failed to materialise a new tack was required. Or rather, an old tack with a new twist. The hiring of relatively young, relatively inexperienced, hungry guys, like Cheika and Schmidt had worked – hiring higher profile guys like Kidney and O’Connor hadn’t. So go back to Molling the Oige – and if you’re going that way, then why change the team that was, by now, in place. Interim coaches became permanent and two month contracts morphed into two year deals. It ticked all the boxes, youth, hunger, an understanding of both the province and the game in Ireland, a history of achievement with Leinster. What could go wrong and how could one question the credentials of legends like Leo, Girve and Fogs?

Plenty and quite easily, as it happens. Leo Cullen was a legend as a player, an overused term perhaps, but in his case, completely justified. He was Leinster. The final five minutes of the semi final against ASM Clermont Auvergne should be played on a loop in the lobby of the Leinster Rugby offices in an Installation simply called ‘Leo’ (I am available for commissions Mick). It is no exaggeration to say that the three stars on the Leinster shirt are there, in large part, because of him. Whilst I may not have scratched his name on my arm with a fountain pen, this “Rusholme Ruffian” does literally wear his name on my sleeve, which is why it pains me to point out that there are serious questions over the appointment of both Leo and his team.

It was a risk appointing Leo to the position of forwards coach straight out of the first XV. Both ROG and Berch (Jackman) had gone overseas to learn their trade in professional coaching so no matter how it went, their reputations, and thus prospects, in Ireland would remain intact. The exposure to a different rugby culture as well would be of benefit. Anthony Foley might be young, but he spent a lot of time in the backrooms of various Munster representative sides before urquharting himself into the top job. Leo went straight from poacher to gamekeeper and it showed. Perhaps the most disappointing part of Leinster’s overall performance last season was how poorly the pack played. The scrum was fine, but the breakdown, the lineout and particularly the maul simply didn’t function at an appropriate level.   Instead of having a chance to work out the kinks that led to such a poor first year of senior coaching, Leo now finds that he has, essentially, failed upwards.

There are question marks too over the (currently) short term appointment of Girvan Dempsey as backs coach. No less of a legend than the head coach, the importance of Girvan’s role as a rallying point for Leinster supporters in the middle part of the last decade cannot be over-emphasised. It was crap being a Leinster supporter back then. A new coach every day of the week, our best player batting his eyelashes at Basques, a media that just loved to put ‘the ladyboys’ down. Girve wasn’t crap though. Girve was good, always good. Sometimes great, but never less than good. And he wasn’t going anywhere. He was getting it from the media too as he was keeping Geordan Murphy out of the Irish team, or rather the perception was that he was. He didn’t let it phase him, just kept turning in consistently good performances week after week until eventually the rest of the province lifted themselves to his standards. One of lifes genuine gentlemen as well, he is one of the nicest guys in professional sport.

None of which matters a damn really in light of the fact that he has never coached a senior professional team.   Enhanced the already stellar reputation of our academy – check. Coached the A-side to back to back British and Irish Cups in fine Leinster style – check. The problem is that there’s an immense gulf in standards between the level of the B&I Cup and the two tournaments the senior team play.   The same goes for John Fogarty – an essential part of the HEC winning squad in 2009 and the team that got to the semi final again in 2010, but in terms of senior coaching experience? Nada.

Richie Murphy is probably the most gifted native coach currently working in Irish rugby. If O’Connor had held on for that final year I’d have bet good cash money on Murphy replacing him as head coach. He is so good that Joe Schmidt has him working with the national team pretty much 50% of his time. And that’s the problem. Apart from the forwards, the most noticeable negative about Leinster last season was the lack of skills on display – and not even the tricksy stuff, at some points even catching and passing the ball seemed to be beyond some of our players. Richie Murphy is the Skills and Kicking (that wasn’t too hot either btw) coach, that’s his balliwick and he wasn’t there.   And he won’t be there much this season either. He’ll only be back from the World Cup two months when he’ll be off again for the Six Nations.   Like I said, Richie Murphy is a great coach – half of him, not so much. In the words of Ron Swanson, “Don’t half-ass two things. Full ass one thing”.

Kurt McQuilkan is a great hire, surely I can’t come up with a problem here you’re thinking, he’s one of the best defense coaches in the game, and you’d be right. Except. Les Kiss is Irelands defense coach, he leaves for the Ulster job once the World Cup is over, McQuilkans original contract expired when the World Cup was over. No rats to be smelt there.

So, all doom and gloom then? No chance for Leinster? Not a bit of it! I’m generally a pretty optimistic chap and the other side of the “untried” coin is that we don’t know. I have a suspicion that Leo Cullen the head coach will be a very different kettle of fish to Leo Cullen the forward’s coach. Its one thing to coach to another mans cloth, quite another to cut that cloth yourself, and that’s what Leo will be doing this season – him and his coaching team will be working to Leo’s plan. And while somewhere between 15 and 20 of his players will be missing for a good chunk of the season, the newly re-signed Isa Nacewa won’t be. Isa is the best foreign player to play in Irish rugby and having him back, and judging by how he looked on Friday night against Ulster, in fine fighting fettle is a huge addition to the squad. So too is the return of Johnny Sexton. How much we get to see of him is open to debate, but signing the best out-half in the world is not to be sneezed at.

Even our “I Can’t Believe Its Not The Heineken Cup” Cup prospects aren’t as bleak as they may first appear when one looks at our group. Both Bath and Wasps made the Aviva Premiership playoffs last season, something we didn’t manage to do in the Pro12, and Bath were losing finalists. Toulon won their third European Cup in a row and reached the semi-finals of the Top 14 after topping the league and before being beaten by eventual champions, Stade Francais. That’s a pretty formidable line up, but Leinster played all three last season and a team coached by Matt O’Connor without Johnny Sexton was able to beat Bath and Wasps at home, draw with Wasps away and took the most expensively assembled team in the history of Rugby to extra time before losing to an ‘own-goal’. When one considers the low level of esteem some Leinster supporters hold O’Connor in, then this group becomes a lot less intimidating.

Mostly though my optimism comes from that most scientific of sources, I have a gut feeling about Leo. I’ve been fortunate to meet Leo Cullen on a couple of occasions, for interviews for “The History of Leinster Rugby” and “Leinster Rugby – The Treble” and the guy has what can only be described as an aura.   There is a sense one gets when you talk to Leo that is similar to the sense you get when you see Brian Cody being interviewed – an outward affability that just about but not entirely masks an uncomfortable obsession with winning. And that’s the real Leinster Way.

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