In the Age of Aquarius, we looked at Cheika and Schmidt’s selections of young players at Leinster. The article’s genesis was based on another article, specifically the line “Henderson’s progress suggests that one of the prerequisites of a top provincial coach is the willingness to give young players game time and the ability to maintain competitiveness while doing so.”
The article was written during Matt O’Connor’s second season when he contended, before missing the top four playoffs for the only season since they were introduced, that
“There are a lot of blokes globally that would come to play for Leinster. But that’s not the reality. It is for no other reason except the Union say that you can’t have them.”
The article’s title was based upon the idea of hewers of wood and, more particularly, drawers of water. Our contention was that O’Connor was a journeyman coach who had misunderstood his brief and was always conscious of his next role. That doesn’t make him a bad guy – it makes him human – but the Leinster board weren’t convinced it was enough and his term ended by mutual consent after two years of a three year deal.
The media had some qualms about his departure with Brian O’Driscoll commenting a year after the event that
“If they had their time back would they hold onto him for another year? Quite possibly. Perhaps it was a little bit rash.”
A widely held opinion was that the call to end O’Connor’s time in charge was “impulsive” and made “without having a succession plan in place”. The subsequent appointment of Stuart Lancaster to replace defence coach Kurt McQuilkin but not coach defence seemed to set a “strange scenario” for Leinster. Compounding this malaise was the view
“It is nearly impossible to get out of your group now,” said D’Arcy. “Most of these groups could be over before Christmas. The days of fighting until the last round, to my mind, are largely gone. They have made it largely impossible to qualify. There was a serious turn around in the power struggle. The English and the French wanted more control over it, which is exactly what they have got, but it is almost impossible for the Irish and the Scottish and the Welsh teams to deal with the power game of the England and the French teams.”
It was the worst of times.
The methodology behind the Age of Aquarius piece was to examine the age profile of starting Leinster teams in the Pro12. Players under 23 were categorised in the young bucket and players above 33 as old. We wanted to see how willing the different coaches (Cheika, Schmidt and O’Connor) had been to give young players game time and how that had affected their ability to maintain competitiveness.
The summary was that O’Connor had tough acts to follow and lacks the pizazz of Cheika or the knowledge and intensity of Schmidt. We saw Cheika as “a decisive risk taker with an eye for a bargain” and Schmidt as an educator, who developed young minds, providing structure and discipline.
The young players picked by Matt O’Connor to debut were:
Marty Moore (a TH) – Brian Byrne – Tadgh Furlong – 4 – 5 – 6 – Josh vd Flier – Jack Conan – 9 – 10 – Sam Coghlan-Murray – 12 – 13 – 14 – 15
Daragh Fanning, a 27 year old winger with a decent AIL pedigree was another homegrown player picked by O’Connor to debut. He doesn’t make this team because 27 year old wingers do not qualify as young in anyone’s books. Fanning played a significant role in O’Connor’s set up, starting eleven games in ’12/’13 and twelve in ’13/’14. He wasn’t a stop gap or an experiment, he was a central component.
The composition of O’Connor’s young team, such as it is, lacks any coherent approach to development. Young players got picked for a spot that couldn’t otherwise be filled…because the IRFU wouldn’t let him sign who he wanted and international duty took precedence. So although tighthead prop is the hardest position for any young player to start at, O’Connor pitched both Moore and Furlong in because he had little choice. In other positions that are easier to play, he was far more reticent so he ended up with less depth and his problem was exacerbated.
The transferred players who made their first starts for Leinster under O’Connor were:
1 – 2 – 3 – Mike McCarthy – Kane Douglas – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – Jimmy Gopperth – Lote Tuqiri – Ben Te’o – 13 – 14 – Zane Kirchner
Which fills in a number of the spots left vacant on his domestic naifs XV. Lote Tuqiri and Kane Douglas both started World Cup finals, Ben Te’o is a test Lion, Zane Kirchner and Mike McCarthy had international careers spread over a number of seasons with multiple caps while Jimmy Gopperth has started in every club he’s played with, in both hemispheres. O’Connor wasn’t hard done by when it came to recruitment but he had a singular idea of how Leinster should run its business.
Three of those players were core to O’Connor’s selections in ’14/’15 with Jimmy Gopperth starting 18 from 22 league games, Kirchner 17 and McCarthy 15. Ben Te’o broke his arm on debut against Edinburgh at the end of October then started nine games on the bounce from January through to May. The other players who reached double figures that season were Kane Douglas, Daragh Fanning, Richardt Strauss (all 12) and Gordon D’Arcy (10). Gopperth, Kirchner, McCarthy, and D’Arcy were all in their 30s that season while Strauss, Te’o and Fanning were in their late 20s.
Curator of the Culture Club and Something More Tangible
D’Arcy has moved into the media where he has a prominent role writing every Wednesday in the Irish Times. An opening paragraph of a January article was “Leinster’s ground-breaking years were enveloped by the tough love environment created by Michael Cheika which evolved into a leadership driven culture where the minutiae coaching of Joe Schmidt became our unassailable strength. Then almost everyone retired (and Johnny Sexton departed) in the same two year period under Matt O’Connor.”
I think O’Connor gets away lightly in this interpretation. It wasn’t simply that everyone retired and circumstances combined against him, it was that he refused to rebuild a team and failed to develop what was there already. He had success but his method was faltering and unconvincing. Why did Leinster’s backs start running across the pitch and passing the ball behind each other when he was the backs (attack) coach? Why did he only pick one young back (for two games) in his time in charge of selection and this during a period when “everyone retired”? Why did he pick an average of 1.2 young players to start per game in his final season, the lowest by far of any coach in Leinster’s modern era (he also holds the record for the second lowest)?
It appears there’s sometimes nothing better a coach can do for his reputation than leave his job. O’Connor did come across as sound – great craic to have at your table at a wedding – but the writing was on the wall when he decided to take on Schmidt and Nucifora publically, mainly because Schmidt’s attitude towards him was dismissive of O’Connor’s ability to handle the demands of coaching a province. In his own factual, accurate way, Schmidt laid bare O’Connor’s shortcomings by comparing his own league record during the Six Nations
“It’s a challenge for provincial coaches to get the best out of their teams all the time when you don’t always have the top players available every time.
“Two years ago, through the Six Nations period, Leinster got 18 out of 20 available points, last year they got 19 out of 20 available points, this year they got nine out of 20 available points.
“If you look at the teams that were put out through those three years, those teams are very similar and have international experience, with guys who have been internationally capped. I think from that perspective the system isn’t broken and we’re trying to refine it every quarter.”
What gets acquired in translation? The evidence suggests that he’s half as good as me, or twice as bad. I’ll let you guys put your own spin on it. No culture talk here, just the numbers. Ouch!
When Leo Cullen was appointed to the role of Leinster head coach, one perception was that the board had made a knee-jerk reaction one night down in Ashton’s and couldn’t find anyone else. Another take is that an influential part of the Leinster culture, the board and executive, had decided that the same culture was in danger of further damage and decided to take action and accelerate their succession plan. We won’t know unless Mick Dawson chooses to divulge all upon retirement but there’s more than one way to paint the story.
In contrast to his predecessor, Cullen has never made himself hostage to fortune with media quotes. I believe that’s not an accident and that Cullen understands the media’s role as well as anyone on the Irish rugby beat. It’s in his blood and his professional interest (sidebar, right); not only was Leo’s dad the founder of Cullen Communications, he was also the founder and Coordinating Director of National Newspapers of Ireland.
That isn’t the only area where Cullen differed from O’Connor. The number of young players selected to start shot up to an average of 2.7 per game in the first season after the Australian’s departure. There wasn’t a single match where a young player didn’t start, mainly due to Gary Ringrose who ran on 19 times that season. Cullen’s pragmatism is apparent when looking at the other pillars of that first season with hard nuts Ben Te’o and Isa Nacewa starting 21 and 19 games respectively. Homegrown stalwarts Rhys Ruddock, Fergus McFadden and Jordi Murphy completed the spine of Cullen’s debut season along with Ross Molony who started 12 of those 24 games at second row. Future Lions props Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong each started ten games but it’s worth remembering the players not on that list – Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Jonny Sexton, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney – and compare Cullen’s silence with O’Connor’s.
Once you go past Ringrose and Molony, there’s a drop in the number of matches young lads were selected for by Cullen. Leavy (6 games) underwent another injury-pocked season. Dooley (3) and Tracy (5) also made their bows in the front row although Tracy wasn’t young by my metric and had converted from prop into hooker so took a time to get familiar with some of the technical demands. Josh van der Flier was still young and started 10 games although he falls under O’Connor’s banner. Cian Kelleher (1), Adam Byrne (3) and Ross Byrne (1) also started in 15/16 when Jonny Sexton caustically observed that Leinster were “culturally nowhere near” where they’d been in 2013.
Cullen addressed Sexton’s remarks directly in the media
“Johnny’s a very passionate guy,” says Cullen, “he’s very passionate about Leinster Rugby and he wants us to be good all the time. Of course there’s a change, but that’s the name of the game. The club went through a very successful period, but some players have moved on. When a club like Leinster is successful talent gets recognised elsewhere.
“A lot of the management and backroom staff have gone on to the Irish team: head coach (Joe Schmidt), S&C (Jason Cowman), scrum coach (Greg Feek), skills coach (Richie Murphy)… so a lot of talent has moved on. Things are different.”
All very measured and big picture; chairman of a PR company, remember. Nonetheless, Sexton had identified something and Cullen needed to address the shortcomings of his first season. The quote above reveals Cullen’s appreciation of the other people in the club but doubtless he was aware that the buck stopped with him. He did what so many successful people do: he surrounded himself with good people.
The first to arrive was Sir Graham Henry, All Black world cup winning supremo. Cullen was “believed to have instigated the idea and although the IRFU are not involved, they have been made aware of the move.”
Nucifora’s reaction is interesting because it made the Henry decision look completely Cullen’s call and not one he asked permission for from the IRFU “If Leo requires any assistance over time he knows he’s only got to ask and we’ll help. He’s doing a good job. It’s not easy coming into a head coaching position with such little experience because he is learning on the go and that can be tricky. He is developing. Does he need help along the way? Possibly, but that’s up to Leinster and Leo to ask for that if they think that’s required.”
Henry’s appointment was for only two weeks but he was followed shortly after by Charlie Higgins as head of Athletic Performance. Higgins is still at the club. The big announcement was the appointment of Stuart Lancaster in September 2016, nearly a year after presiding over England’s ignominious early exit from their own World Cup. Lancaster’s stock was consequently low at the time most people, notably Shane Horgan, concentrated on his efforts at addressing the English squad’s culture when he arrived at Leinster. That ignored the depth of Lancaster’s coaching experience and his on-pitch nous. It was a move that took everyone by surprise at the time and seems like the perfect match now: a career coach with experience developing elite players at a club with a conveyor belt of young talent. It’s worth remembering that a season earlier, only one of those young talents – Jack Conan – started more than half the club’s games and frequently they fielded zero young talents.
Again, the appointment was painted as Cullen’s decision rather than one made for him:
“Leo is the one that instigated it, which makes it even more positive. He doesn’t feel it’s a threat. He’s encouraging it, enhancing his knowledge which has to be a good thing.”
In the season that followed, Leinster played some effervescent rugby but didn’t win anything. The re-integration of internationals accustomed to a more structured, cautious approach seemed to cause the team to slow up dramatically after the Six Nations. The high-water mark was reached on 4th March when a team including six young ‘uns ripped the Scarlets apart 45-9. If you’d been told that you were watching the eventual league champions you would have believed it but you’d have had the wrong team picked. Thereafter Leinster tightened up, winning three games by a total of four points, as well as beating Connacht, before losing the last two games of the season to Ulster and Scarlets.
You’re Picked, You’re Dropped. So Are You.
Lancaster’s first season saw a plethora of young players provided with opportunity. Astoundingly, there were 3.65 young players on average starting each game compared with a third of that number two seasons earlier. Leavy, O’Loughlin, Carbery, Adam Byrne and Ross Byrne all reached double figures but it’s worth noting that the two players that played the most often were Noel Reid (17) and Zane Kirchner (15). Regular internationals are an addition to a provincial team rather than a central part of it and, as contended earlier, Leinster played better that season without their renowned names.
Cullen is still listed as Head Coach on Leinster’s website but his role seems far closer to Director of Rugby with Lancaster doing a lot of the on pitch coaching while Cullen picks the team and sets the strategy. Cullen’s debut selections as young fellas (“Leo’s Lads”) line up as:
Peter Dooley – 2 – Andrew Porter – Ross Molony – James Ryan – Josh Murphy – Dan Leavy – Max Deegan – Nick McCarthy – Ross Byrne – Jordan Larmour – Conor O’Brien – Gary Ringrose – Adam Byrne – Joey Carbery
and contains seven internationals already, six of whom were involved in Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam. There are five alternative selections in Jeremy Loughman, Peader Timmins, Will Connors, Ciaran “Creepy” Frawley and Cian Kelleher who are all still in the pro game. Cullen also gave starts to five other domestic players who didn’t qualify as young: Ed Byrne, James Tracy, Barry Daly, Rory O’Loughlin and Tom Daly. What’s done is done but these guys should have started under Matt O’Connor.
A number of transferred players made their first starts for Leinster under Cullen: Hayden Triggs, Mick Kearney, Ian Nagle, Scott Fardy (all as second rows!), Gibson-Park (project), James Lowe (project) and Robbie Henshaw (marquee).
Triggs is a Kiwi but could have qualified for Ireland if he’d stayed another season although wasn’t an international player. The two projects will be eligible if they see out their contracts so only Fardy is a non-runner for Ireland. That more than half of Leinster’s signings are second rows suggests that one of the challenges Cullen has faced is replacing himself as a player. James Ryan is primed to have a top career while Ross Molony has the making of a club stalwart who could set an appearance record.
After three years in the job, Cullen projects a reassuring air of understated confidence. He addressed areas where he wasn’t strong by getting in Lancaster and dealt easily with Sexton’s broadside about the culture shortcomings of the club during his first season.
Importantly, he appears to have learned the lessons of the post-Six Nations 2017 part of the season and Leinster have adopted a less aspirational, more pragmatic style of play in ’17/’18. This style is far closer to Joe Schmidt’s and should make it easier to re-integrate Leinster’s internationals and pursue silverware on two fronts. From a distance, it appears that Lancaster has had to compromise here but with no ill effect. It may even be that Leinster use the “meat-grinder” approach as a base and seek to build a riskier, high reward option on top of that.
Above all else, he has believed in his young players and backed them to deliver. Belief and support engenders confidence and that’s the hallmark of Cullen’s regime. It’s worth remembering that Sean O’Brien was selected on the bench for the Scarlets semi-final before he decided his ankle was injured and he’d rather train with the Lions later in the week. Dropping Sean O’Brien, who hadn’t started a league game since January, isn’t an easy call but Cullen was prepared to make it.
Nothing Succeeds Like, er, No Succession Planning
Matt O’Connor bemoaned missing his players and the opportunity to sign more, ignoring the talent coming from underage ranks that was staring him in the face had he chosen to look. Having reconfigured the Leinster set up to benefit from the academy talent, Cullen faces the issue of re-integrating internationals when they are occasionally available, maintaining a hungry squad and choosing how to balance youth and experience. Irish internationals do not play frequently for their provinces so in order to be in a position to challenge at the business end of the season, you need a strong squad. The challenge at that stage is to decide who to keep and who to leave out – the guys that got you there and are familiar with your systems or the celebrated names with the big match experience who haven’t been involved on a weekly basis?
To date Cullen has done a good job without winning anything…in contrast to Matt O’Connor. If he achieves that then the media commentary from his first season surrounding the knee jerk appointment will be airbrushed from history when the story is recounted. An efficient talent pipeline and the position of Director of Rugby will be part of his legacy.