As Rob Penney departs for the Land of the Rising Sun, the Mole stumbled across a reference to an era of that proud nation’s history that struck him as appropriate for the times.
The Sakoku foreign relations policy was instituted by Japan during the 17th century and remained in effect for over 200 years until 1853. Under Sakoku (“chained country”), no foreigner could enter nor could any Japanese leave the country on penalty of death.
It is conventionally regarded that the shogunate imposed and enforced the sakoku policy in order to remove the colonial and religious influence of primarily Spain and Portugal, which was perceived as posing a threat to the stability of the shogunate and to peace in the archipelago.
Most overseas influence has been removed from Munster’s foreign policy and they’ll go to compete in next year’s European competition with an all Irish coaching ticket and an aspiring Irishman in the backline. Shogun Foley will have no truck with this expansive, lateral, front-five-on-the-wing nonsense. Not only is the coaching ticket Irish, it’s all-Munster with Con and Shannon particularly prominent. UL Bohs’ Ian Costello is the only man from outside that duopoly so we know who to point the finger at!
While all new coaching tickets (brains trusts?) are interesting, particularly in a club as celebrated as Munster, these appointments could be a new model for Irish provinces who have been near addicted to Antipodeans since the inception of professionalism. There is no established pathway for a dedicated club coach to move from muddy evenings under floodlights to daily training on the all-weather. Brian Walsh’s progress will be interesting for that alone. He is not the first as Brian McLaughlin and, further back, Bobby Byrne made the transition from Joe to pro while il Dece was a teacher on secondment until the end of his reign as Irish coach. However, he is the latest and that’s enough.
Part of me wonders how much of this was choice and how much was forced upon Munster. Foley strikes me as a very good coach. Ireland’s forwards improved under his watch and when he took over defence that went well also. For the last two seasons Munster’s pack has been strong with a particularly well drilled maul. Foley also gives the strong impression of a man who looks reluctant to go past Roscrea if he can avoid it and I wonder what his network outside of Munster is like and whether working with Foley is an attractive proposition from a political and career point of view. Rob Penney never looked comfortable beside Foley and Brendan Fanning hinted that Franco Smith of Treviso had been approached as backs coach but had rejected the move.
Pat Lam’s appointment as Connacht coach may not have been greeted with universal acclaim but it seems that Kiwis love Pat and his ability to attract players of the quality of Bundee Aki and Mils Muliaina to Connacht is extremely impressive. Knowing the right agents in the Southern Hemisphere and getting players to go to your club rather than France or Japan or, worse yet, a competitor, is an important skill for a big club coach. The travails of David Moyes’ and Ed Woodward’s first summer in the transfer market was an indication that even iconic brands can struggle if the infrastructure is not in place.
The media coverage of Foley and his team and how they deal with it will be very interesting. As a tracksuit coach you get wheeled out for the occasional media days and say your bit for the scribes and cameras. As head honcho you act as a lightning rod for an opinionated public reluctant to criticise players but looking for someone to blame! The quote I most readily associate with the late great Paidi O’Sé was “Being a Kerry manager is probably the hardest job in the world because Kerry people, I’d say, are the roughest type of f****** animals you could ever deal with. And you can print that.” He qualified that shortly afterwards as “What I meant in the article about the Kerry supporters is that they are very hard to please, always demanding the highest standards, because they are a very proud race of people.”
Are Munster rugby folk that different from Kerry football supporters? I’d say there’s little difference and that on some occasions they are one and the same. Jerry Flannery’s wise cracks and media experience ar an teilifis will doubtless come in useful next season but people will be paying attention to what he says then.
On the subject of players getting a free pass while coaches cop the flak, the xenophobia in Leinster has been a very disappointing aspect of the season. It seems to me that Jimmy Gopperth and Matt O’Connor get most of the blame for Leinster finishing, er, top of the league and with a home final.
I feel a bit hypocritical writing this as I’ve been shaking my head in frustration at the standard of some of Leinster’s play this season. Nonetheless, I’m also of the opinion that ascribing the drop in standards solely to the coach is fan-boy populism. We know the players are professional and competitive so they must know that passing the ball behind each other and running across the pitch isn’t good enough. The standards in training are their standards, the culture of the club is largely theirs. One of my personal favourite tales on this topic is Warren Gatland’s anecdote about Wasps in the build up to one of the big finals they contested during his time at the club:
“We were training before one of the big finals. It was a sponsors’ day too, so there were lots of people about. I stood and watched. I don’t think I said anything. The players drove the session, I think one of the other coaches may have run a drill. We warmed up, we trained for about 40 minutes. That was that. Olivia came over to me. She said: ‘Can I ask you a question? I don’t want to be rude, but what do you do?’ I told her that was the best compliment anyone ever paid me. Any side I have ever been successful with had this group [a hard core of experienced men]. The Wasps group, for example, made sure the discipline was right, they made sure that the quality of training was right. And for a long time, we felt we were working harder than anyone else in the game; not longer, just with more intensity.”
Leinster have an experienced group of players who are capable of speaking for themselves. If standards have fallen from Joe Schmidt’s time blaming Matt O’Connor seems an easier option than pointing the finger at players the fans support.
If I were to argue O’Connor’s side of things I’d say that he looked at the squad he had at the beginning of the year and figured he had two internationals in almost every position in the pack, with Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy improving rapidly. His backline had been stripped of the Lions’ test starter Jonny Sexton and Isa Nacewa, his starting centres had lost their cutting edge and their back-ups were unproven. Playing a reductive, forward-oriented game would give him the best chance of success as Leinster would likely have a better pack than whoever they were playing against. In his first season as a head coach, O’Connor needed success and he went about it pragmatically.
Leinster fans under Joe Schmidt “never had it so good” and the more realistic must have realised it at the time. All the talk about Leinster playing a certain sort of way seems a bit precious to me and the preserve of a support base that has been spoiled in recent years. No one was complaining in 2008 in Ollie le Roux and Stan Wright were grinding out the away wins but that was before consistent success I suppose.
O’Connor’s greatest crime seems to be his treatment of Ian Madigan. Again, I’m not convinced by this. Madigan’s an international, not a naïf, and Ronan O’Gara’s testimony about how little Kidney offered him technically and tactically were revealing about how effective an outhalf can be despite his coach’s (perceived) shortcomings.
I’m long a fan of Madigan and wrote this a few years ago, when we used to write articles:
“Madigan is a player that needs a top class coach. Blessed with a naturally high skill level, he doesn’t require that much technical one-on-one instruction. He does need to learn how to control a game, where to put the ball on the pitch, to understand that you don’t have to score off every phase but, by putting the ball into certain positions, you increase your chances of scoring off a subsequent phase. In other words, multi-dimensional stuff…Larkham knew that you didn’t have to score off each phase, attempt trick plays or throw 50-50 passes. You did have to give yourself options all the time, options that increased your chances of scoring and made it more difficult for the defence to stop you. Madigan has the skills to play that game so it’s now a question of choice rather than ability.”
Has Madigan made that step up? I believe he hasn’t and that he still has the ability to. I also believe that he is the one who will effect that final transition, not any coach. A top level outhalf will make those decisions himself as Paul O’Connell testified about the Chairman:
“When you were playing with ROG you did not have to make any tactical calls really because he understood and knew when to change and do something different and when to alter a game. That was the big thing about having him as a captain. He was always a captain on every team he played in himself anyway. Invariably he made the right calls.”
In contrast to Foley, O’Gara made the call to get out of Munster and moved to Paris in order to start his coaching career and develop his experience and network. Just like Foley was, he is seen as an heir apparent to one of the biggest jobs in European rugby but he’s chosen to go about it a very different way. Whether you need to be a top class player to be a top class coach or if it is possible to learn the ropes in the AIL and graduate to the majors is uncertain. Foley’s sakoku regime will go some way to answering both questions.